Assaulting press freedom

Freedom of the press is not simply the freedom to report the news, but it is the freedom to attain the goals of objectivity, accuracy, fairness and truth in whatsoever manner the press chooses — with the citizenry and not the government being the rewarder or the punisher of that choice.

If an elected official through the use of his or her office makes pronouncements that can have a deleterious effect on the status of press in a free society, that official runs afoul of principles of protecting press freedom that The Bahamas has for decades committed itself to uphold.

When our nation became a signatory to the 1994 Declaration of Chapultepec, it committed present and future administrations to 10 guiding principles aimed at protecting the rights and freedoms of the fourth power of the state — the press.

For many Bahamians, including today’s politicians, democracy is more of an abstract, indistinguishable idea as opposed to a foundational philosophy that undergirds relations between the elected and those who elect them.

As such, many in the society do not have a full understanding of the importance of the press in protecting their democracy, and consequently do not appreciate how their well being in a democracy is threatened when press freedom is assaulted.

The Parliament is the center of power in our system of governance and the speaker of the House is a preeminent position therein, which is why House Speaker Halson Moultrie’s recent assault on the integrity and reputation of the press is a noteworthy downturn in the country’s relations with the Fourth Estate.

During last week’s controversial intervention against the nation’s press, Moultrie said, “They are competing with social media and as a consequence a number of false reports, fake reports and opinionated stories that are appearing in the newspapers.”

In its contributions to its 10 guiding principles, the Chapultepec Declaration raises the alarm against governments acting arbitrarily in their relations with the media, engaging in activities that can cause the media to censor itself, and committing acts that can damage the reputation or credibility of the media.

It is troublingly ironic that the presiding officer of Parliament had comfort with leveling allegations and accusations against the press for which he chose not to provide evidence or proof — a departure even from the standard of conduct he urges parliamentarians to adhere to.

To do so is to act in a manner that can diminish the position of the press in the eyes of the public given the preeminent office the speaker holds in our system of government.

It is equally ironic that a speaker who has sought to pursue parliamentary independence so as to bolster the legislature’s ability to be a check on the executive, has behaved in this manner toward a member of the Fourth Estate whose role is to be a check on both pillars of government.

When Moultrie ordered that our reporter cease the capturing of footage during the House’s proceedings and that the footage be deleted, he referenced his being guided by the current Rules and Procedures of the Parliament.

What is important to note is those rules are silent on the activities of the press.

With respect to broadcasting the proceedings of Parliament, the rules speak explicitly to the activities of the Parliamentary Channel and not to private broadcasters or media houses.

When the Rules and Procedures of the House are silent, parliamentary convention in the Westminster system dictates that the speaker’s discretion is to take precedence.

But when he exercised his discretion in a manner that cast aspersions on the character of members of press, indicating that Parliament must protect itself against potentially “unscrupulous” members of the media, it represented both a stunning and illogical assault not only on the nation’s journalists but on the media houses that employ them and work to ensure their reports are balanced and accurate.

In Parliament, Moultrie has often ordered members to withdraw claims they could not substantiate so as to uphold integrity in debates.

So as to uphold the integrity of relations between the legislature and the press, it is regrettable that he did not follow his own admonitions this time around.

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