World Press Freedom Day, observed this past Tuesday, placed a global spotlight on the work of journalists and other media professionals.
The day has been observed on May 3 ever since it was declared by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in December 1993 following recommendations of UNESCO’s General Conference.
The UN noted that, after 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its signing.
May 3 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.
It is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The theme this year was “Journalism under digital siege”, which the UN said spotlights the multiple ways in which journalism is endangered by surveillance and digitally mediated attacks on journalists, and the consequences of all this on public trust in digital communications.
UN Secretary General António Guterres noted that digital technologies create new channels for oppression and abuse.
“The methods and tools change,” Guterres observed, “but the goal of discrediting the media and covering up the truth remains the same as ever and the results are also the same; people in societies that are unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and can be manipulated in horrifying ways.”
In The Bahamas, we are fortunate to have a strong free press and that our journalists and media professionals are able to operate in an environment that is generally safe and independent.
While we are spared the life-threatening challenges of operating in war zones, destitute societies and countries led by despots, we have had to withstand attempts at intimidation by those in power and by their sycophants and others connected to them, and their political parties, who use social media to attack and smear journalists for speaking truth and for demanding accountability and transparency from those in government.
Under the Minnis administration, which was removed from office last September, the then-prime minister punished The Nassau Guardian by withholding government advertising from this newspaper.
It was a disgraceful act, but it failed to put a muzzle on this newspaper and its various media arms. We asked questions, and exposed bad policy and abuse.
The withdrawal of business came at a time when advertising dollars were already drying up given the significant negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on businesses across the country.
Despite this, we were able to keep our staff employed and the country’s oldest newspaper publishing and also expanding its online presence.
After the general election last year, we observed that the decision to stop government advertising in The Nassau Guardian, the official gazette, had been a direct violation of principles of the Declaration of Chapultepec, which former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham endorsed on the country’s behalf in 2002.
A key principle is that “media and journalists should neither be discriminated against nor favored because of what they write or say”.
It adds: “No news medium nor journalist may be punished for publishing the truth or criticizing or denouncing the government.”
Apart from cutting business, the former prime minister and some of his ministers were often rude, condescending and disrespectful toward media.
The Davis administration has taken a different approach, holding weekly briefings and implementing a policy that is more respectful of journalists.
But it has also raised suspicion and faces criticism that it is seeking to destabilize the media environment by silencing certain prominent voices in media by offering them lucrative job opportunities.
While we, too, have lost some of our bright talent, we remain unwavering in our determination to operate independently and fairly.
We also recognize the tremendous responsibility we have as media practitioners and our obligation to correct our mistakes whenever they are made, and strive to do better.
As we reflect on the freedoms we enjoy, we recommit ourselves to the high ideals of journalism, primarily speaking truth to power no matter who sits in the seat of power.
As the UN secretary general observed on Tuesday, “Without freedom of the press, there are no real democratic societies. Without freedom of the press, there is no freedom.”