When the Parliamentary Channel was introduced in 1994, it was an integral part of the government of the day’s thrust to bolster accountability by enabling the Bahamian people to watch and listen to live coverage of the proceedings of their Parliament.
That introduction deepened – not replaced – the level of information about the business of Parliament the public received which before then to the present day, came from the working press.
During the same period, the then-Free National Movement (FNM) administration liberalized broadcasting, which had the effect of expanding the press corps in The Bahamas and opportunities for the press to hold government accountable on behalf of the Bahamian people.
In short, it was the FNM’s practice at that time to embrace a free press and to remove encumbrances to its critical work in the country’s democracy as a function of good governance – but that practice is markedly devolving into antagonism toward the Fourth Estate.
As recent rants against the media on the part of House Speaker Halson Moultrie are fleshed out and debated, it is important not to narrow the focus to a single personality and as such, negate the need to put his actions in the broader context of the administration of which he is a part.
Unlike in the Parliament of Britain (the mother Parliament) where a speaker must resign from his or her political party upon election to the chair, political neutrality is not a requirement for the office of speaker in The Bahamas.
Today, as has been the case for decades of our history, the speaker of the House is a member of the governing party and a member of its parliamentary caucus whose head is the prime minister.
The Parliament itself is subject to the administrative authority of the executive (the prime minister) and in this term, the speaker and the prime minister meet regularly to discuss matters pertaining to the Parliament.
While Moultrie is responsible for his own actions as speaker, his actions necessarily fall to the charge of his administration as well, and are in many ways a continuation of what has become an often adversarial posture with the press taken by members of this administration.
Following the 2017 election, the media was almost immediately met with a dismissive, combative and evasive prime minister who went back on pledges to meet quarterly with the press and who routinely engages in open derision toward reporters.
Senior ministers of the government respond to press questions when, if and how they wish, failing to respect that to respond promptly, factually and professionally to press inquiries on the people’s business, is their duty.
The minister of public works even went as far as to declare that he would not speak to this newspaper, displaying a level of open contempt for this aspect of ministerial duty that heretofore was not associated with his party’s governance.
And of late, as if in homage to the president to our north, government ministers have taken with the mantra of “fake news” used as a seemingly ad hoc shield to discredit any and all who would critique or challenge statements or talking points that run counter to fact.
It was unfortunate to witness members of the governing (some who ought to know better) side pound the tables as the speaker declared his intent to provide them protection from the press and by extension the public.
Already bunkered by parliamentary privilege that enables parliamentarians to say whatever they choose while on their feet without fear of litigation or prosecution, these same representatives of the people feel they need protection from the people’s press.
The same press that parliamentarians sought to court at election time in the hopes of winning over the votes of the Bahamian people are now thought to be best set behind a Chinese wall so as to protect MPs from the reporting of their own words and actions in the people’s House.
What is done to the press is done to the public.
Adversative relations with the press and hence the public on the part of members of the government is incompatible with democracy and for this administration is part of a regrettably continuous departure from the path of good governance.