Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It Hits The Fan

It seems that it's really hit the fan over this Media Council Bill (Dubbed the Media Suppression Bill by Vexed), its gotten to the point where I'm losing track of the number of international organizations that have released damning condemnations of the bill. Those of us in the online community seem united in opposition as well.

To restate the reasons for the strong opposition to this bill is by now redundant and a waste of time and I hadn't intended to post again on the subject but, when unnamed government spokesmen clutter our newspapers with the absolute drivel that they've seen fit to grace us with this time it's hard not to address their attempt at a counter-argument.

First of all I must point out (as many others have) the irony of the use of unnamed spokesmen to defend a bill that seems set to be debated on the same day as the PATI legislation. Go figure. Then of course there's the question as to why the government use an unnamed spokesman in the first place. For a government that claims to have no intention but to protect the public interest and promote a free and fair media one would think they'd take reasonable steps to avoid creating the suspicion that the choice of spokesperson create but then again... It is Dr. Brown.

Unfortunately things only get more ridiculous from that point. Step one of the Government counterattack seems to be to discredit the international organizations that have expressed their concern (Hmm.. Where have I heard of governments doing that before?). What's most interesting is their strategy. They dismiss all but one of the organizations of having an inherent American slant which makes their concerns invalid because we're not America. The one they don't paint with that brush, The International Press Institute, which isn't based in America is dismissed with a suggestion that their spokesperson may be American. Yeah that's right. He may be American. Now if you live in the same Bermuda I live in then you will remember the various battles the Government has had with the Governor and the way Dr. Brown repeatedly takes shots at our "Colonial Masters" you wouldn't have dreamed that suddenly the Government would take a U-turn and begin extolling the correctness of the Governor's views (he believes that the Council would, in fact, be independent in its current form). Such is the political times we live in though. As soon as it becomes convenient the Government drops the attempts to portray us as closer to America with the UK and their representatives as our evil masters and turns around to dismiss experienced international press freedom organizations for being too American and begins using the UK appointed Governor's statements as proof of their point. Apparently it is completely acceptable for the Government to ignore not only the skills and reputations of some of the organizations but, to mislead the public as well because two of the organizations in question are actually related to the UK and have little/no ties to America (those two being the Commonwealth Press Union and the Press Complaints Commission which is the corresponding council in the UK). Lets have a look at some of the big names:

  • The IPI
60 years of defending press freedom:
The International Press Institute is a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists. We are dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism.
  • Commonwealth Press Union
The CPU Media Trust has been established to defend the interests of the Commonwealth media.

The Trust is committed to a professional, ethical and effective media across the Commonwealth. Its primary concerns are supporting media freedom and media rights, the training of journalists in the skills necessary for them to enable their work and a thorough understanding of media law and the establishment and support of self-regulatory bodies throughout the Commonwealth.

Groups with a purely American slant that don't understand the way things work in Bermuda? Or dedicated press freedom organizations expressing concern at the direction a reasonably developed democracy is going? You decide.

Next we have this issue of whether or not it is right to have Government appointees sitting on the council. The spokesman attempts to justify it by pointing to the presence of "lay members" on councils in England and Ireland. Lets be clear on that point right off the bat. Government appointees are in no way lay members of the council, they are Government representatives with the forseable power to vote to suppress embarrassing stories. Were it to be 5 representatives of the Media, a Governor appointed chairman and 6 independent members of the public agreed upon by the Media and Governor then it would be a different story but, these 6 members are appointed on the advice of the Premier who shall have consulted the Opposition Leader as it currently stands and that is a risk no one should be willing to take. I previously stated that I understand the arguments for including government representatives on the council but, would rather see 6 Media reps and 5 Government reps rather than the current opposite situation because then the Government would require the support of the Governor's rep which creates a presumption to err on the side of the media as it would require the Governor's rep to actively vote against the media. That being said however, I would prefer to see no government involvement at all much like the UK council which proves that self-regulation not only works, but works well.

In defense of the independence of the Governor's appointees the spokesman points to the Public Service Commission and the Ombudsman and this is a good point but, unfortunately it's not good enough for me. In any political system there are two parties in almost constant conflict, the People and the Government. In a Democracy the weapons of choice are (theoretically) facts and the arms dealer (to both sides) is the Media. Such a basic pillar of our system cannot be put anywhere near the danger of control by the Government. As well intentioned and incorruptible as any current or future leader may be it would only take one with ambition to abuse the system and that is a risk we cannot afford to take. For the PSC and the Ombudsman we have no choice but, to deal with the imperfect system but, the same risk should not be taken with the Media. If the Government was really committed to ensuring a fair and open Media they would adopt the successful policy adopted by the UK government and let the local Media attempt to create their own self regulating council before rushing in with the big guns and taking what could be a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

Then there are the power to effectively gag the press that the council would have under the legislation., keep in mind that the UK commission acts without any statutory powers at all and yet functions perfectly well. This has created one of the biggest bones of contention regarding this act. The defense from the spokesman?...

They can only gag it for a limited time.

Clearly they missed the point. It should have no power to gag at all!

We can only hope that this will not go through on the nod under the PLP whip. It would be a travesty for local democracy. The UBP opposes it, the Alliance is almost certain to express similar views, now its time for the PLP backbenches to take action in the interests of the Bermudian people rather than following the agenda of a clearly confused cabinet which seems unable even to figure out the name of the spokesman in charge of dealing with this bill.

Wishful Thinking

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