The Police’s seizure of Mr Devant Maharaj’s phone in pursuit of information, re the recent credible bomb threat, raises important questions about the evolution of the media and the preservation of press freedom.
The importance does not arise merely on the issue of the action taken but we need to consider how to treat with the new frontiers of journalism—social media, online newspapers and citizen journalism—and what this portends for confidence in the media.
We already have significant loss of confidence in the legacy media vehicles as partisan viewpoints, challenging their narratives, emerge freely outside their control and as their organisational structures bleed from the loss of revenue due to a loss of audiences. They have not done themselves any good by resorting to the regurgitation of press releases and the lack of investigative capacity. To investigate requires patient financial support and publishers are less willing to seed that work.
On the other hand, the lowering of costs for creating, transmitting and distributing information through technology has important democratising effects. While legacy journalism shares core values of independence, autonomy and objectivity, there is little evidence that these values are embraced by the new media.
This therefore raises the key question: who should have power to define reality? Does the internet make you a journalist or a publisher? What is the basis of bestowing ‘rights’ to the denizens who lurk on social media?
There is a difference between those who perform ‘acts of journalism’ and an activist who uses social media.
Control of information is always destined to be a source of conflict. Threats from officialdom will arise because it is difficult to manage and manipulate information in a digital world. Officials will always attempt to preserve the right to disseminate their version of the truth.
As an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (Eric Alterman, The Nation, 21 April 2005).
Bloggers, such as Afra Raymond, who use reliable documents and who expose corruption and injustice must have source protection. But would the purported UNC plan, if implemented, in the pursuit of a political agenda based on material from the activist group, ttpatriots, have been able to claim the same protection if the ‘public interest’ test is applied?
When journalism crosses over into public relations by being mouthpieces for vested interests—or do what the Russians call kompromat, the publication of well-timed leaks—should it be protected?
The point of freedom of speech is to promote a democratic culture where people can participate actively in deliberations and be informed about public issues. Not everybody gets to speak but everything worth saying must be said. Press freedom can meet its demise through irresponsible truth-seeking and telling.
This is the danger that MATT did not consider in their response to Devant Maharaj’s appeal for cover. They run the risk of destroying the faith that the general public places in them.
The police should not be doing the job for MATT and MATT ought not to be reactive to requests such as from Maharaj. They are not a trade union.
When the political elites engage in the ‘politics of permanent scandal’, does the nation benefit or are we being seduced through laughter? Was Jack Warner, with his titillating ‘not tonight’ stories, practicing journalism on the elections platform?
How different is this constant bacchanal from the proverbial shouting of ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre? The problem is not the speech but the act of inciting a dangerous situation.
The danger is two-fold: we normalise corrupt deeds and make it a laughing matter. Or we build walls between us based on who said what and we never get to have the required discourse to reform our society. We break down our bonds that keep us as a sane society.
The large problem for press freedom in a digital world is the ‘chilling’ of sources, who become unwilling to speak, due to the State and others’ ability to back-track communication and the widespread surveillance now possible. This compromises the ability to uncover wrongdoing and promote good governance.
MATT and the silent Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association should be agitating for updated definitions of ‘press freedom’ rules. They need to find that balance between press freedom and public safety and health concerns.
The resuscitation of the Media Complaints Council is a necessary antidote to the current situation as is training for the journalists in how to protect their sources in a digital world. They cannot only focus on the legacy media.
But collectively, we have to insist that one person cannot decide what is a national security issue since that can be used to justify stifling dissenting voices. There must be a clearly defined process.
We should discuss whether source protection is an absolute right, without exceptions.