Report to the Midyear Meeting

Panama, Panama

March 6 – 9, 2015


The Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, DeLisle Worrell, had indicated earlier in the year that he was banning all journalists from The Nation newspaper from attending any of his press conferences or other Central Bank events, a decision that has been condemned by academics, opposition politicians and social commentators.

What was instituted by the Central Bank Governor was the curtailment of the press conference to discuss the state of the economy after each quarterly online presentation. The hosting of a press conference to give business journalists greater details and to answer their questions had become the norm over many years.

It was during the second half of 2014 when three The Nation staff, publisher Vivian-Anne Gittens, associate managing Eric Smith and associate editor Barry Alleyne, were interviewed by the police in relation to an article written by Alleyne and published on July 17 2013, relating to the walkout of the House of Assembly by the Opposition. By year-end there had been no outcome from the police in relation to their actions on the issue which stemmed from the article said to have breached parliamentary rules.

However, the incident which caught the media's attention even though it did not involve any of their practitioners or any independent journalists was the police's decision to press criminal charges against a blogger for his actions using the social media. Barbadian Omar Shawn Watson, 39, in late November 2014 appeared in the Magistrate's court charged with sending a message via computer which was menacing in character. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and was released on US$ 500 bail to re-appear this year.

The police said the message caused the country's Minister of Transport and Works, Michael Lashley, annoyance, distress and anxiety. The incident created much public debate with many people querying whether postings on Facebook and online pages of the various and growing new media outlets will now come in for greater scrutiny from the police. The Royal Barbados Police Force said it had noticed the use of social media "to present malicious communications which at times can be very damaging to persons' reputations. We are warning persons to desist from this type of behaviour which constitutes a criminal offence and once reported there will be an investigation."

Barbados remains without a Freedom of Information Act, while the proposed reform of the Defamation Act has also not been tabled and discussed in the country's legislature.

Trinidad and Tobago

Two pressing realities have influenced press freedom during this period.

The nearing approach of general elections has predictably sharpened political exchanges; and

The trending decline in revenue from T&T's main energy exports has heightened anxieties about maintaining national prosperity and living standards.

Media entities have continued to make the most of opportunities presented by leaks and whistle-blowings from inside official circles. Coverage of wrongdoings and potential cover-ups has even resulted in high-level ministerial dismissals and resignations.

Reporting on high-profile crime, through making use of insider sources, has drawn attention, favourable and other, to the media. This has also been the area productive of most serious threats to media practice and freedom. One reporter, receiving from criminal quarters credible threats to his life, sought safety by taking temporary flight out of T&T.

The prevalence of social media, and the scope for crowdsourcing enabled by smartphone cameras everywhere, have both challenged and facilitated mainstream media. Unique footage supplied by unknown "citizen journalists" present often-irresistible choices to news editors and producers, who are thereby challenged to assume responsibility for the authenticity of "news" they had no hand in gathering.

Other important issues:

The President of the Republic made extraordinary use of his official resources to threaten with litigation a radio show host who had made critical remarks about the attire on one occasion of the wife of the head of state. At time of writing, five months later, the Presidential litigation has failed to proceed beyond the level of threat.

For reasons not explained, during the Port of Spain visit of the President of Venezuela, the T&T media were denied access to coverage opportunities made available to Venezuelan counterparts.

Assorted threats and intimidations from various sources, notably including the manhandling of a cameraman by relatives of an accused person outside a courthouse, have continued to remind the media of the sometimes disconcerting reality they face.