Open Letter to Reporters Without Borders

I sent the letter below the RSF as I was disturbed at the high rank of Jamaica in comparison what most people here acknowledge to be reality.


To: “Reporters Without Borders”; “Reporters Without Borders Americas Desk”; “Reporters Without Borders Internet Desk”

Dear Sir/Madam:

As a patriotic natural-born Jamaican, I am ever-eager to see Jamaica rank as highly as possible on the world stage — from FIFA & Olympic rankings  to IMF & international NGO assessments. However, I can neither embrace nor endorse such a high ranking when it is not deserved; and further, when it endangers the lives of family and friends about whom I care deeply.

I write then, to register my discontent and disappointment at the rank accorded to the nation of Jamaica in the 2008 World Press Freedom Index released yesterday, October 22nd, 2008. The report accorded Jamaica a rank of #21; however it is clear to even remote observers that this comparatively high rank has not been earned by the Jamaican government. Further, this comparatively high rank is a disservice to the many Jamaicans that depend on a free press to act in the public interest. This rank ill serves them as it diminishes the significant barriers to a free press deliberately erected via both official action and state inaction.

Firstly, Jamaica today has a regime of libel laws that were originated, and are perpetuated, to stifle the freedom of the press. Jamaica has a regime of libel laws wherein the penalty of imprisonment is still a threat that can be used to intimidate journalists who would seek to publish information detrimental to the interests of public officials & personalities. How can RSF reward the Jamaican government for maintaining the threat of a prison sentence (in abhorrent prison conditions) over those journalists who wish to speak freely? How is this comparatively high ranking for Jamaica compatible with RSF’s stated objective to “fight against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom”?

To his credit the new administration of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who was inaugurated on Sept. 11th 2007, has begun a process of reform of these onerous libel laws. However, it is my view that until and unless that process is completed and a new freer regime of libel laws is enacted by the parliament, the comparatively high rank accorded to Jamaica in the 2008 rankings is premature and misguided.

Secondly, Jamaica is a murder capital of the world where allegations (many proven) of state brutality, and extra-judicial murders by state agents, are widespread; in addition to a more generally pervasive violence in the society. This atmosphere of widespread violence and general state inaction is not conducive to the free exercise of the the craft of journalism. RSF works “to improve the safety of journalists, especially those reporting in war zones.” Reporting in Jamaica is very much akin to reporting in a war zone; and to reward the inaction of the state with this high ranking sends the false message that anemic responses to atrocious violence (including violence against the press) is laudable. Indeed journalists in Jamaica have publicly acknowledged the trepidation with which they enter certain communities, called “political garrisons”, to conduct their work. These political garrisons are criminally controlled locales, invariably aligned with state actors — government officials and political functionaries. Therefore reporters are rightfully concerned at the fate they might meet if they engage in actions in these areas that are not sanctioned by the state actors or which may be inimical to the interests of these political functionaries.

Lastly the ownership structure of media in Jamaica lends (perhaps rents) itself to mercantile interests, including those detrimental to free enterprise and competition. It is widely believed that state agents engage in light/no enforcement against the commercial interests of media owners in exchange for biased coverage in their favor.

I urge RSF to consider these factors in future indices.

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4 thoughts on “Open Letter to Reporters Without Borders

  1. Hey DD,

    i feel your pain. some of these rankings, competitions and awards are based on some set of superficial indices which really don’t do justice to the real state of affairs. remember how development used to be measured by GNP, income per capita etc? finally they realized how inadequate and farcical this was and someone (a Pakistani?) developed the Human Development Index or HDI which is far more nuanced and therefore more accurate. This is what is needed to measure press freedom, a more sensitive barometer of the atmosphere in which media operate in the nations of the world.

    at first sight Jamaica would appear to enjoy great freedom of the press at least on the airwaves. the print media is elliptical and noncommittal at best but on radio the legion of talk shows allow fairly uncensored views to be aired and citizens are used to calling up their favourite hosts and airing grouses against government, private sector, public agencies, utility companies, police etc.

    but ultimately what has this freedom produced? what effect has this freedom to exercise our views achieved? little or nothing as your very astute post above details. corruption and crime are rampant, the government has little or no credibility and the population is victimized by any and every predator imaginable…

    why value this kind of press freedom then? that’s the overwhelming question…can Reporters Without Borders answer that?

  2. D – good letter!

    Annie – you raise the exact issue that continues to bother me when I hear people – even mediafolks! – laud the “freedom of press” in Jamaica.

    Yes, people can call and seh whateva dem w’aa seh pon di radio. You can hear all ki’n a viewpoints, and even when di host dem a try censor an’ mediate, the ideas still a get tru. But a who we really a talk to? Nobody nuh need fi ansa or pay we no mi’n if dem cyaa’ bodda. None o dat cussin an’ philosophizing don’t go nowhere else, every idea is treated as equal, except when you disagree wid di host, and that’s entirely fine from the perspective of the government.

    Why? The supposed freedoms to say whatever we want to say do not constitute any significant challenge; they stop at the gate of Gordon’s House or the bottom of Jack’s Hill, and don’t go no further. In that way, the airwaves do not constitute a threat or even a test of the notion of freedom of press. Why? Because, we the citizens – including radio hosts by the way – have not used that freedom to organize ourselves and ideas in ways that might and could challenge or threaten to change the status quo. The openness of the airwaves helps to reinforce a kind of pseudo-democracy that we ourselves. The state has no problem with that.

    Reporters Without Borders clearly don’t look beyond surface numbers and measures, and thus reinforces an image of a benign state in relation to the media.

    On the other hand, we who are aware of these inconsistencies certainly haven’t pointed them out in the ways we should, so that RWB would have additional and better data to inform its evaluation of the Jamaican media environment.

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