Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Basil Jarrett | Standing up for our journalists

Published:Thursday | June 20, 2024 | 12:49 AM

Like many law-abiding citizens who still have high hopes for this country, the news of veteran television reporter Giovanni Dennis being threatened on social media after airing a report on illegal drag racing angered me. Not simply because, as the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), the information minister, and other news houses have stated, the threats amount to an attack on the free press, but also because, once again, Jamaicans seem to have become so comfortable with lawlessness and indiscipline, that only a handful of persons seem to have taken notice.

I’ve known Giovanni for some time now. He strikes me as a calm, fair, by-the-books kind of man, whose courage and professionalism belie his youthful appearance. So I have no doubts whatsoever that he would have dotted all his I’s and crossed all his T’s in making that special report on illegal drag racing.

ATTACKING DEMOCRACY

I can only conclude, therefore, that whoever decided to target the young man over that story, did so simply because the exposé was drawing attention to, and threatening the continuation of their highly illegal, highly contentious, highly dangerous pastime.

But Giovanni’s experience is no different from that of so many of our critically important journalists and reporters who remain our quietest set of unsung heroes. They may not be pulling babies from burning buildings, but in the relentless pursuit of truth, journalists stand as a heroic beacon against a society that has become largely unmoved by the relentless lawlessness that saturates society today.

To be fair, its not much different elsewhere in the Caribbean. Remember Grenada earlier this year when its government decided to exclude media representatives from the swearing-in ceremony of its new cabinet ministers, sparking outrage from the Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG). That unprecedented action was denounced as a “dangerous new low” in the government’s treatment of independent media, showing that quite often, press freedom is attacked by the very persons who have been given the duty to protect it.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

So as we’ve come to realise, the profession of journalism is not without peril. Journalists and reporters are the custodians of our societal conscience, wielding a pen instead of a rifle, a baton or handcuffs. They often have to traverse treacherous, hostile, dangerous terrain, driven solely by the imperative to unearth the truth and hold the powerful accountable. Imagine then, the chilling reality that so many of our investigative journalists face, where, after being targeted for their unwavering commitment to the public’s right to know, they encounter a deafening silence when attacked or threatened for their vigilance.

And I think that’s what should hurt Giovanni and others more. Not by the threats, since, well that’s what miscreants do. But more so by the collective silence and ho-hum response from the average citizen. Even Vibes Kartel got, and still gets, a bigger show of support from the public.

RALLY BEHIND OUR NEWSROOMS

And that’s what I think is most despicable about this whole situation. Threats to press freedom are a grave affront to our democracy. They send a chilling message that those who seek to expose wrongdoing will be met not with accolades but with intimidation. And so, in the face of such adversity, it is imperative that we rally behind those who dare to speak truth to power. Investigative journalists must be supported more emphatically and encouraged to embody the courage and integrity that define their profession. They are not mere bystanders but active participants in the defence of the liberties we enjoy, and often do so at great personal risk.

The right to a free press, therefore, is indispensable to the health of our democracy. It is through the diligent work of journalists that we are made aware of all the injustices, crime, corruption, and abuses of power that might otherwise remain hidden from public view. To threaten or intimidate a journalist is not just to attack an individual but also to attack the very foundations of integrity, accountability and transparency.

THE CHILLING EFFECT

And we know that these threats are meant to also have a chilling effect on the entire profession by discouraging others from following suit, out of fear of reprisal. This undermines the public’s right to be informed and diminishes the diversity of voices in our media landscape.

It is incumbent upon all of us, therefore, as citizens who value democracy, to condemn unequivocally any and all threats against journalists and to take an active role in stamping it out by helping law enforcement to identify and locate the perpetrators. We must demand that those responsible are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Anything less would be a betrayal of our commitment to a free and vibrant press. Not to mention a sell-out of the highest order.

In times like these, we must remember too that “the pen remains mightier than the sword, but only if it is allowed to write freely”. This can only be achieved when journalists are free to do their jobs without fear of violence or intimidation.

PRESS ON

And so, to Giovanni, and all the other quiet warriors in the newsrooms that have faced threats, intimidation and pushback for their reporting, continue to stand up for society, even though sometimes it seems that we are undeserving. Know, too, that you are not alone in the struggle to keep society honest and accountable. As someone who works on the law enforcement side of the fence, and who has been targeted for my own insistence on principles, governance and doing what’s right, I can commiserate.

But know that your courage remains an inspiration to many of us who still believe in this little piece of rock called Jamaica. Your work is not in vain, even though some would like you to believe otherwise.

Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. Visit him at www.thecrisismajor.com. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com