The role of newspapers in a democracy
That newspapers, which had their origins in palace reports and imperial bulletins issued in ancient Asian and European empires that predate Christendom, would dare to include criticism of the ruling classes was considered unacceptable for much of recorded history.
Some claim that the love-hate relationship between political leaders and the press has its beginnings more than 300 years ago with the arrest of an American publisher after he included political criticism in his newspaper. So, antagonism between political leaders and the press is not new.
Edmund Burke is credited with formalizing the recognition of the important role of the press when, in referring to the three estates represented in Parliament – nobles, clergy and commoners – he maintained that a fourth far more important estate existed which sat in the gallery; that is, the press.
Freedom of the press appears to have won acceptance by the British Parliament in the late 17th century. In the 18th century, Sweden enacted what is believed to be the first law to defend freedom of the press. The notion gained a foothold in the Americas when the United States of America enshrined it in the First Amendment to its Constitution.
Today the fourth estate encompasses all media – print, audio, audio visual and today’s electronic “social media”.
The press in The Bahamas, constrained by outdated libel laws, has often tempered their political commentary. It is worth noting that this newspaper has been sued by two former prime ministers (Pindling and Christie); we paid awards to each to settle the same without prolonged litigation and without admitting any liability.
Efforts to update libel laws have not garnered wide support. A bill introduced in Parliament to do so died a quiet death. The Freedom of Information Act, first adopted by Parliament in 2012 but not brought into effect, is still now, after much public consultation and extensive amendments by two administrations, not yet fully in force.
The most respected newspapers hold no brief for a single ideology. They do not create news; they report it through the distribution of accurate stories that are fair, balanced and impartial. In providing the public with both sides of a subject or dispute, newspapers seek to assist readers in constructing their own opinions independently.
Newspaper publishers and editors have played significant roles in history particularly in support of journalists who investigate suspicions of wrongdoing on the part of both public and private institutions on subjects as diverse as trade in contraband, human rights violations, human trafficking, bribery and price-fixing. The Watergate Scandal that ultimately ended the Nixon presidency in the United States of America comes to mind.
Here in The Bahamas, the revelation by the Wall Street Journal of the corrupt payments of consultancy fees to members of the UBP cabinet by the Grand Bahama Port Authority greatly influenced the outcome of the 1967 general election that brought the PLP to office. Then, in the 1980s, allegations of drug-corruption that would rock the Pindling administration were largely brought to light by the reporting of the London Sunday Times, the Miami Herald and by independent Bahamian newspapers given that the government monopoly of the airwaves colored reporting on the subject by ZNS radio and television.
That The Bahamas experienced a change in government in 1992 speaks volumes to the role that an independent print media played. That change in government freed audio-visual media from government monopoly; it ushered in an era of proliferation of privately owned radio and television. The Bahamas signed the Declaration of Chapultepec whose principles, it has been said, affirm that freedom of the press “is the essential foundation of democracy and at the same time the best defence against the abuse of authority”.
Later, media coverage, both print and audio-visual, on the management of the New Providence Infrastructure Improvement Project in 2012 and of corruption and maladministration in 2017 played a significant role in influencing public opinion and the outcomes of general elections held in those years.
Today, multiple media outlets represent the interests of the people in relation to business and political elites promoting transparency and the people’s right to know what is being done by the government of the day in their name and by businesses that solicit the public’s patronage.
This newspaper has existed for 175 years.
Its motto: “Be at peace with all mankind but at war with their vices.”
We currently employ 120 Bahamians. We have not and will not cower from the musings of the politically powerful. We remain committed to the principles of the freedom of the press.
We are proud to serve the public.
In this role we, like most newspapers, are truly watchdogs for the people.