Sunday, Dec 9, 2018
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Rocky relations

The role of media in deepening democracy
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis speaks with the media following a tour of the Fusion Superplex facility on Gladstone Road yesterday. Torrell Glinton

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”
George Orwell  

In the year since Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis addressed the Bahamas Press Club Awards dinner, relations between the government and media in The Bahamas have deteriorated, with the PM becoming increasingly agitated by the persistent probing of reporters and more defensive and arrogant in his dealings with them.

A significant part of his difficulties arises from the many statements he has made — in government and in opposition — that he has backtracked on, contradicted or failed to follow through on. He has a difficult time defending his positions or explaining decisions being made.

A year ago, Minnis told journalists they were interested in going after drama and excitement while “missing important stories on policy” and suggested that they are more interested in “easy stories” instead of giving a broader context on issues.

“Some in the press often miss important and more consequential stories on important public policy questions,” he said.

“By example, the landmark legislation that will be introduced to enable a certain classification of women and men denied equal access to citizenship in the constitution has been unreported, while some other stories have gained more traction. Drama undeniably excites viewers and readers. This is much easier to report on.”

Minnis was referring to his November 2, 2017 announcement in the House of Assembly that the government intends to amend the Immigration Act (presumably he meant the Bahamas Nationality Act) to ensure that all children born outside The Bahamas to Bahamian women automatically receive Bahamian citizenship.

Of course, he erred in that claim that his announcement was unreported. It was featured prominently across the media. Interestingly, more than a year later, the government has said no more on that important policy issue and has presented no law to effect what he claimed will happen.

Upon taking office a year and a half ago, Minnis appointed a press secretary — former Press Club President Anthony “Ace” Newbold — to deal directly with the media, but Newbold’s role has been largely ineffective. Some weeks, he holds press conferences to field questions from reporters, but is often unable to provide specifics or substantive information on topics of interest.

It is often a complete waste of time.

Yesterday there was an early announcement that there would be no weekly press briefing by him. No explanation was given. We suppose he wanted to accompany the prime minister and members of his Cabinet on a tour of the new Fusion Superplex entertainment center.

After he was appointed in 2017, Newbold announced that the prime minister would hold quarterly press briefings to entertain questions from reporters. Asked last week when the prime minister intends to live up to his word, Newbold said Minnis will hold the briefings when he is ready to.

Yesterday, Minnis said he will have quarterly press briefings “when the time is right”.

The Minnis administration has been failing miserably when it comes to messaging and communications. That is not the fault of the media, of course. We are not here to do PR for any government.

Unfortunately for the FNM, the person doing the most damage to the FNM’s image is the prime minister himself. He does not seem to understand how to package a message that would be helpful to his own and his government’s image.

As an example, he was on the defensive when he visited Eleuthera last week. Just as the highly controversial issue of the government’s decision to rent space from Immigration Minister Brent Symonette to house the General Post Office in Nassau had faded from the headlines, Minnis shoved it back into the news when he tried to tell us that Symonette was, in fact, doing us a favor — giving us a ‘gift’ — by deciding to cover the cost of renovating his own facility to accommodate the post office move.

He wanted reassurance from Eleutherans that his government had done the “right thing”, in the same way he sought reassurance several weeks ago from Crooked Island residents that the government did the “right thing” when it bought the Grand Lucayan resort in Freeport.

Some of those in Minnis’ immediate circle were left holding their heads over the fact that the PM continues to take actions to attract bad press.

On these and other issues, the FNM administration, out of arrogance we suppose, has allowed the official opposition to drive the message while playing catch-up.

During the Free National Movement’s (FNM) recent conclave, the prime minister acknowledged that his government has not been doing a good job in the area of communications. He promised an improved communications program.

Since then, he has had more tense moments with reporters who use every available opportunity to ask questions. He rudely dismissed a Nassau Guardian reporter at a press conference just over a week ago, and on Monday, one of his police aides repeatedly shoved away the microphones of reporters trying to question the prime minister as he left a speaking engagement.

A Tribune reporter said the same aide threatened to shove her away if she questioned the prime minister.

Fortunately, things never escalated to that, but video footage of the microphones being shoved was not a good look. It gave the impression that the executive is taking steps to intimidate media and using law enforcement to do it. This is something to watch. It could be a dangerous signal in our democracy if it continues.

Revelations

No reporter or media person should be disrespectful or rude to the prime minister or any of his ministers, but they should also not be afraid to ask tough questions either.

It is not the job of the journalist to do public relations for the government or to create a comfort zone for the prime minister. That is not the way to get the answers, particularly in an environment where freedom of information legislation is still not enacted.

Getting the answers does a service to the citizenry. Governments only volunteer information they want the people to know. We make a point every year of reminding our reporters who cover the budget communication that the real information is buried in the budget tables, and that requires close scrutiny and time.

Our asking of questions is not unique to the Minnis administration. It is also not unique for the current government to feel it is being treated unfairly by the media. That happens with every administration.

In the last term, an angry Perry Christie, the then prime minister, declared that journalists who criticize his leadership capabilities could go to hell.

Christie also felt that he was treated unfairly by media. His was a particularly unaccountable administration. It was largely a government of secrets. Many of the revelations made about the condemnable actions of the Christie administration in the months leading up to the 2017 general elections were as a result of media digging and probing.

The media’s extensive reporting on the worrying contents of a consultant’s report into a Rubis oil spill, while highlighting that the government had buried the report for more than a year, put into context for Bahamians the seriousness of that issue.

The Nassau Guardian’s reporting in November 2016 on a proposed deal with the Chinese for a fishing project in Andros and The Tribune’s damning revelations on Nomination Day about then Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald seeking contracts from the Baha Mar developer for his family’s business were issues that featured prominently in the 2017 general election.

The Free National Movement, headed by Minnis, benefited greatly from these revelations, which intensified public anger at the government of the day and helped push the FNM to a resounding victory.

Likewise, relations between Hubert Ingraham and the media, when he was in office, were not always smooth, particularly during the most contentious period of his last term when the government was selling a majority stake in the Bahamas Telecommunications Company and when it was engaged in the largely disruptive New Providence Road Improvement Project.

Respect

Tense relations are, of course, not unique to The Bahamas and its political environment.

In the United States, President Trump through his actions has long declared war on the media, popularizing the term “fake news” and accusing some news outlets of dividing America. The media remain a special target of the president’s fury.

Relations are not likely to improve.

Just yesterday, CNN announced that it has filed a lawsuit against Trump and several of his aides, seeking the immediate restoration of Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s access to the White House.

The lawsuit is a response to the White House’s suspension of Acosta’s press pass after a tense exchange with the president at a post midterm elections press conference last week.

In The Bahamas, media have tremendous challenges. It is difficult to find and retain talent and to secure funding to conduct extensive and in-depth investigations. Some of our challenges relate to the intellectual laziness on the part of some journalists. In some cases, their lack of experience diminishes the quality of the work presented.

We cannot defend shoddy reporting or a failure of the media to do their homework. We continue to push for the full enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, but we recognize that that would do nothing to compensate for poor work and irresponsible reporting.

Still, the role of media in our society, as in other democracies, is tremendously valuable.

Speaking at a press freedom event in Paris on Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the importance of protecting the free press.

He said, “If a democracy is to function, you need an educated populace, and you need to have an informed populace, ready to make judicious decisions about who to grant power to and when to take it away.

“When citizens cannot have rigorous analysis of the exercise of the power that is in their name and they have granted, the rest of the foundation of our democracies start to erode at the same time as cynicism arises.”

In an article posted on Huffpost, Matthew Lynch, editor of The Edvocate & The Tech Edvocate, also highlighted the importance of a free press in a liberal democracy.

“An independent media is a vital feature of any liberal democracy,” Lynch observed.

“If the government was able to control all the information regarding its own actions then it could most certainly escape all accountability and even have an unacceptable level of influence over its citizens’ actions.

“This is why the importance of a free press cannot be underestimated. In a liberal democracy, the aim of a free press is to continually scrutinize the government and provide people with accurate and impartial information so that they can act on it accordingly.

“Thus, the media acts as an effective check on government power and influence over its citizens.”

The media are not going anywhere.

The sooner Minnis and his government accept that and better coordinate their messaging, the better.

It does not serve a government to be arrogant and dismissive of the media and to continuously show contempt for journalists. That only worsens what they are seeking to achieve.

Likewise, journalists and other media personnel have an obligation to be responsible in their reporting and how they approach people in authority. The goal is not to be rude, entitled and obnoxious, but to be persistent, tenacious, well-prepared and always respectful.

The government and media do not need to be bedfellows. However, both sides need to recognize that, in a democracy, their roles are irreplaceable.

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