Responsibilities, rights and duties of a free press
Responsible, competent and professional media are indispensable to the maintenance, development and flowering of a democracy.
It is doubtful that a democracy can survive at all without a vigorous and intelligent media capable of asking penetrating and incisive questions of government, business, civic, religious and other leaders and officials.
This is why the freedom of the press is an enumerated right in most national constitutions, including The Bahamas. Press freedom is sine qua non for a flourishing democracy. So, too, a responsible press.
And as with all freedoms in a democracy there are concomitant responsibilities and duties, including a commitment to fairness and probity.
The freeing of the broadcast media and the dismantlement of state control of radio and television was an extraordinary advance in freedom of the press and freedom of expression in The Bahamas. It helped to deepen and to broaden our democracy.
Talk radio allows for a diversity of opinion and unrelenting and often colorful criticism of political leaders. Citizens get to offer and to vent their views on a host of matters, even when they are factually wrong. Talk radio is also a significant moneymaker for some broadcast houses.
As with any media, talk radio has featured hosts and broadcasters who have abused the medium, and whom a number of the stations have had to let go. This medium can easily be abused by crusaders with unfettered agendas.
It is important in the wake of the social media-enabled proliferation of sources of information these days to note the distinction between professional or institutional media and the unprofessional and sometimes reckless social media which is wide open to egregious abuse.
When the dubious and fake information on social media is utilized as a source of news, the media landscape deteriorates even further. One evening broadcast newscast has had problems on this front. One of its broadcasters went so far as to falsely accuse a board member of a government utility of impropriety.
In many other jurisdictions, the journalist who spun this false narrative would have been relieved of his post.
A society should expect that its institutional media – newspapers, television and radio – are populated by responsible, well-trained journalists and managers.
It is the responsibility of professional media to hold up an undistorted mirror to the society, to keep the people informed about what is happening in the country, about the functioning of its national institutions – especially its political institutions – and about the state of the society in general.
It is also the responsibility of professional media to lead the development of public opinion and attitudes by providing intelligent and vigorous commentary on every aspect of a nation’s life and to provide forums for the free expression of public opinion.
The state of the media in The Bahamas today cannot be described as its best. For example, it is highly irresponsible on the part of owners of radio and television outlets to inflict on the public ignorant and irresponsible commentators merely because they happen to be glib or entertaining.
Unfortunately, very rarely do the media hold up a mirror to themselves. There seems to be precious little self-criticism, no credible media watchdogs or ombudsmen.
Despite relentless criticism of politicians, when some in the media are criticized by a politician they become apoplectic and reflexively claim that the freedom of the press is under attack, which is typically exceedingly overblown.
Is there a clear, identifiable code of ethics for the press in The Bahamas or a press club-like media oversight group as in other jurisdictions which help to maintain press accountability?
Every human institution – government, church, corporate – requires internal and external accountability mechanisms. So do the media. Institutions typically fail at self-reflection and accountability absent external accountability.
It is a good thing to see so many relatively young people being attracted to television journalism but it is sometimes painfully obvious from their use of the language that some of them suffer from the lack of more mature oversight and mentoring.
Even our two venerable dailies, which play an essential role in our democracy, sometimes fall quite short. It seems that the Fleet Street tabloid disease (complete with front page comic bubble) has infected one of them. One paper occasionally reveals signs of bias, not to mention occasional commentaries that read more like tirades.
In addition to skill and judgment in gathering and reporting the news, command of the language is an absolute necessity for professional journalists.
It is the most important tool at their disposal and they ought to be better at language than the rest of us. In fact, the population should be able to look to the media for examples of proper English usage.
Aspects of the Bahamian media have sadly shifted to the same activist positions we see in various media overseas. Rather than just providing the news and facts, some push their biases, agendas and personal grievances to the public dressed as news.
Some in their commentary express near hate for certain public figures. Week after week there is an attack on the same people. Such a mindset risks coloring one’s news judgment.
Certain news houses have been taken over by partisan fever. This is unfortunate in our young democracy. The shift in parts of the Bahamian media to activist or partisan news, takes away the credibility of those who take this route.
Just as politicians have democratic responsibilities so does the press, who play an essential role in providing the public with news coverage that should be as in-depth as possible and non-jaundiced.
There are examples in North America of fair and reasonable news. In the United States, the PBS Newshour delivers facts and sober commentary. It uses rational analysis when considering matters.
The purpose of the Newshour is to inform and educate. It does not seek “to go after” any public or private figure.
In Canada, CBC News similarly gives the news as it is. When watching its coverage, there is no obsession. It presents a diverse set of stories and airs the views of various sides on issues of national importance.
In a democracy, journalists must have the maximum freedom to do their essential work. All freedoms also demand tremendous responsibility, restraint and an ethic and duty of fairness.
The media should be as vigorous in demanding accountability of itself as it is of others, including public officers and politicians.