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Caribbean needs de-politicized state media

Left to right: CBU Secretary General, Sonial Gill (at the lectern), ACM’s Wesley Gibbings, Trinidad and Tobago journalist Tony Fraser, and then ACM President, Clive Bacchus.

Even as the newly-elected government of Trinidad and Tobago contemplates selling off the state-owned media, several veteran media professionals say there is a major role for publicly funded media once they are not manipulated and mismanaged by governments for political reasons.

Addressing the opening of the 8th Biennial Conference of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) in Port-of-Spain recently, the Communications Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Maxi Cuffie said a review was being conducted to determine the future of the State media in his country.

While a final decision would be taken after consultations with stakeholders, the minister sent a strong message that government was about to sell out the three television stations, four radio stations, and three cable channels because it no longer makes dollars and sense. “In a contracting economy and with depressed energy prices, this appears untenable. We need to decide whether this is a good use of government resources when each day people are crying for better roads, houses and drainage,” he said. Trinidad and Tobago has 37 radio stations, 10 television stations, three daily newspapers and Social Media

In the interim, he said government was seeking to restore confidence in existing State media  by ensuring that they are “devoid of political agendas, propaganda and politicking.”

During a panel discussion on the Future of State Media, panelists argued in favour of retaining the State Media as a public service rather than as a propaganda tool. Secretary General of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), Sonia Gill acknowledged that a politicized public service broadcasting system across the region has resulted in “talent flight.” 

She recommended that the region’s state-owned media refocus their attention to inform, educate and entertain. She saw the need for government to inject some funds into content and create policies on content delivery across several platforms. “A financially-feasible and relevant state-facilitating media require policy support including direct subsidy of content and possibly some infrastructure, a national digital literacy education initiative and an expertly staffed and appropriately supported policy formulation entity that takes media policy formulation out of the political process and give it the kind of technical support it deserves and can generate,” she said.

Gill said media policy issues should focus on areas such as freedom of expression, universal access, human resource development, relevant content, media access by disabled persons, and well-informed technical guidance on infrastructure.

 Veteran Trinidad and Tobago print and broadcast journalist, Tony Fraser stressed that state-owned media rather than government-operated media such as Information Services in that twin-island nation should not be shut down. “It is not up for the picking by any government of the day,” he said, explain the reason for retaining state-owned media. “People have a right to communicate on the medium or media they are paying for,” he said.

Fraser expressed concern that few ordinary nationals of Trinidad and Tobago do not see and hear themselves on television and radio. “We have to reflect ourselves and the commercial operations are not going to do that. They have not been established to do that,” he said.

Bemoaning the decline in the quality of radio production over the years, he argued in favour of his own 1981 idea for a the establishment of a Broadcast Authority to maintain and promote standards.

Referring to the TT$90 million annual state media bill, Fraser queried why the government of that oil-rich Caribbean country could not spend TT$20 million on sponsoring quality programmes.

Using Trinidad and Tobago’s recently held elections in which the People’s Partnership lost power, Fraser cautioned against the abuse of the state media. “Governments, who hold on to state-owned media and abuse what is not theirs, it does not help them when the election comes around; the most recent example is the last one,” he said.

Then President of the ACM, Clive Bacchus said the Caribbean was facing a situation of “political party syndrome” in which parties use publicly-funded media to stymie the opposition in the hope of being re-elected.  “We have political parties whose reasons for being at the top of that list is to get re-elected so once you are going to have political party-owned media versus taxpayer-owned media, you are going to have political parties running the media to their own advantage- stymie the opposition, dodge questions and to belt out propaganda by the gallon,” he said.  He offered a wish-list that could help fix the age-old problem by ensuring that boards are appointed transparently, and established broadcast codes with penalties for certain infractions. “If taxpayers are going to fund the state media, state media must be for taxpayers and if we all are paying taxes the media must reflect the minorities among us, the diversities among us and must be held accountable to taxpayers,” said Bacchus, a Guyana-born broadcast journalist and manager of the privately-owned WINN-FM radio station in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Expressing full support for state media, Bacchus said the focus should not be on making the country or government “look good” but should focus on transparency, accountability and efficiency.

Bacchus suggested that news-judgement should not be confined to air conditioned offices but by reaching out to recipients to ascertain what they would like to hear or see and deliver the reports in a timely manner.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has begun assessing the state of the media in the Caribbean.