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Free journalists to provide quality
Two major issues of contemporary journalism were articulated at the International Press Institute World Congress, held in Port-of-Spain over the past three days. They were the need for investment in the production of quality journalism, and the call for the repeal of legislation that criminalises libel and slander by media houses and journalists.
People everywhere depend on information collected and disseminated by the media to make decisions in their everyday lives. Such information varies across the range of human activities, be they economic, social, political, commercial, cultural, or whether to prepare for rain, sun, a tsunami or a hurricane.
The media are required to provide information and insight into very complex issues such as climate change, international finance and economic matters, international political relations and the scourge of international drug trafficking and its offspring criminal culture. It follows that the formulation of opinions on which people base their life choices must be generated and published by competent professionals.
Therefore the initial training and constant upgrading of the knowledge base and skills of journalists are matters which cannot be compromised by a business model that is preoccupied with bottom-line issues. Instead, it is the production of quality journalism around which successful business operations must be hinged. There need not be incompatibility between the one and the other—both the elements required to produce quality journalism, as pursued by commercially successful media houses, are needed for survival in these harsh economic times, when the cost of producing a newspaper or electronic media publications is high.
But the lesson has been that readers, viewers and listeners are attracted to quality and credible output by media houses and as is surely the case, size and quality of audience attract advertising revenue. Media houses therefore have to invest in skilled, experienced and motivated reporters and journalists for survival. In addition, investment in modern technology and know-how to use the technology is an imperative which cannot be avoided.
The view that it is necessary or reasonable to criminalise libel and slander by journalists and media houses starts from the assumption that the media go out of their way to be malicious and to wrongfully and falsely bad-mouth people. That surely is not the case among mainstream media dedicated to the historical objectives of the media and of journalism.
No one is arguing that journalists and media houses must have freedom to slander and libel people and institutions without having to account for their actions. But when the law stipulates heavy fines and stiff jail sentences, that amounts to intimidation of the media and journalists.
As indicated at the congress by the president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, Wesley Gibbings, Caribbean governments which have criminal defamation laws on the books need to repeal them and also to institute functional laws on the rights of all citizens to access information.
In the Caribbean it is easy for both large and small media houses to hire at the lowest levels and refuse to spend on ongoing training. But as it has often been demonstrated, such a business model comes with a different kind of price tag, which is paid not only by their employers but by the whole society: slipshod, unprofessional journalism.
Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has noted that “meaningful participation in democratic processes requires informed participants.” Quality journalism, as a means of informing and stimulating people in an environment of freedom, is indispensable to a modern democratic society.
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