STARTING THIS Saturday, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), perhaps the world's best known watchdog on press freedom and protection of the rights of journalists, will hold its first-ever Congress in the Caribbean with Trinidad and Tobago as the venue of choice for deliberations and decisions over four days to guide future programmes and initiatives.
In pre-Congress media statements the IPI has placed emphasis on its continuing campaign for the termination of criminal defamation laws, with a particular focus on the Caribbean region. It claims that regional governments have "actively exercised libel laws over the past 15 years—even as such laws have fallen into disuse in other parts of the world".
It is, of course, important to work for an end to the punitive weapon of criminal libel that some governments resort to in challenging abuses of press freedom by claimed irresponsible journalists and media enterprises.
But the delegates and observers who will participate in the coming June 23-26 IPI congress with its theme, "Media In a Changing World", should know that the Caribbean region—a microcosm of the world's peoples and cultures, and with diversified media ownership and practices—also faces other challenges that impact on press freedom and the wider issues, like freedom of information and freedom of expression.
These would require a collective effort on the part of the region's governments to ending what is more than an anachronism, namely, the colonial-inherited Official Secret Acts.
This law continues to frustrate the region's media in the challenge to help ensure an informed populace for a better society by unhindered access to vital information in the national interest.
Jamaicans still discuss the unprecedented libel costs, first US$1 million and subsequently US$3 million the Jamaica Gleaner has had to pay for two separate libel cases. Guyanese are familiar with how the weapon of criminal libel has often been wielded against the media, particularly during the era of an almost 25 years of governance under one-party rule of governance by the People's National Congress (PNC).
Criminal defamation laws have often been summoned to rescue the integrity or heal the hurt of a variety of leading citizens in Trinidad and Tobago, among them media "moguls" and politicians.
Of more worrying recent concerns would be examples like the police raids on newsrooms and harassment of journalists in cases which affected the Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) and Newsday in this Caricom partner state.
Such developments should not be ignored by the IPI Congress.
Nor should the Congress be so focused on real or perceived wrongs by state-owned media that the sins of privately-owned media are ignored or rationalised.
It is felt that irrespective of ownership structures—private, state-owned or diversified—the media in general must be held accountable for acts of irresponsibility.
Acts that not only make a mockery of the fundamentals of press freedom in damning the integrity of individuals, but which also jeopardise the social, economic and political health of a nation.
There is general awareness of the comparatively large and diversified outlay of print and electronic media in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Nevertheless, it would be interesting to learn of the rationale for the IPI's choice of these two countries, Barbados and the Dominican Republic as the four regional states for sending of missions—ahead of the coming Congress—to discuss the issue of ending criminal defamation.
However, we await what ideas and decisions will emerge from the IPI Congress, either in the form of a "Declaration" or "Action Programme" on a range of concerns to the media and people of the Caribbean in relation to issues of the right to information, right to press freedom and freedom of expression, as well as ending criminal defamation laws..
In its announcement of the four-day Congress, the IPI offered an appealing blurb on Trinidad and Tobago "as the perfect choice for this occasion… Port of Spain, the capital city", it notes, "is a vibrant, multicultural and cosmopolitan city, and Trinidad and Tobago—the birthplace of calypso, limbo and steel pan—is the microcosm of everything the Caribbean has to offer..."
And indeed it is such a place, even, sadly, as it seems locked in an unintended and unwelcomed rivalry with Jamaica, to be the two Caricom states with an abominable crime culture that mocks valiant efforts to ensure progress in an environment of law and order.
An observation of more relevance to the IPI's Congress in Port of Spain, is that offered by that icon of Caribbean culture and scholarship, the late Rex Nettleford.
In his essay on "Freedom of Expression and the Caribbean Media", published in Speaking Freely and edited by Robert Martin, Nettleford wrote:
"The Commonwealth Caribbean remains the living laboratory of processes of social transformation and nation building in the Americas…Central to this process has been the issue of freedom of expression…
The importance of freedom of expression to the Commonwealth Caribbean's view of itself as a society committed to democratic governance and its civil society is rooted in a long history of conscious resistance to institutional and psychological marginalisation of the people…"
This is the Caribbean that cherishes, as noted by Nettleford, "the importance of freedom of expression". These are values that remain quite essential—for governments and governed—to right the wrongs and ensure social and economic progress in a sustained democratic environment.