On Monday, during the course of my umpteenth or so webinar of the COVID-19 era, I had the opportunity to share observations and discuss ideas related to the impact of the pandemic on the practice of journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The event was hosted by the European Union—Latin America and Caribbean (EU-LAC) Foundation and included journalists, academics and press freedom folks from Spain, Latin America and my oneself from the Caribbean.
My opening statement emphatically set out to distinguish our sub-regional experience from what was being described by my counterparts in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Our Spanish moderators appeared keen on hearing me explain that at no time Caribbean journalists have been required, so far, to report on catastrophic medical outcomes – as bad as it has been that in the English-speaking Caribbean we have had several fatalities.
But, nowhere in our region, is there anything like what I heard about the tribulations of journalists in Brazil and Venezuela (to cite only two cases) in accessing raw data and information, reporting faithfully on dread realities, and having access to the people and places where reliable information can be obtained. In some instances, journalists are being harassed and even arrested for doing their job, and colleagues there frequently identify a need for psychological support.
This is absolutely not to contend that the pandemic has not exposed some rather nasty things about the relationship between Caribbean journalists, politicians and their proxies, and media audiences. Or that we have not had our share of personal trauma.
Instead, the absence of the most extreme conditions has provided us with clarity regarding the convergence of the legacy media’s more difficult challenges—some of them internal (we are far from perfect), but most of them derived from the broader contestation to command the attention of hearts and minds.
The thinness of the region’s economic fortunes, for example, has highlighted the financial fragility of our media sector. With advertising revenue down between 50 percent and 70 per cent, there have been layoffs, salary cuts, reduced production and, in one or two cases, a full shift from traditional to digital platforms.
Refuge in new and digital media by traditional newspapers and broadcasters is proving not to always be an easy option. There are issues related to the monetising of content and business models to assure adequate investor returns in the midst of an environment where everything else is perceived to be “free.” Listen out for a challenge in Grenada regarding the legality of statutory notices posted digitally, to cite one small example.
Meanwhile, witness the continued emergence of shadowy online conduits for the free flow of political propaganda and disinformation.
Here are the rights of free expression without corresponding responsibility. Simply develop a platform and start publishing stuff. Anything. About anybody. However legally actionable remain some breaches.
The fact of a busy Caribbean elections season (nine elections this year) ought to have also busied us with observing how political operatives have been attempting to influence the political narrative.
We need to keep an eye on how partisan elements have been employing easily-recognisable templates to achieve their objectives, including the use of misinformation as a weapon against traditional media.
COVID-related financial difficulties are thus now joining concerted action to undermine the credibility of our media. This is happening in the midst of the threat of what some describe as a “capture” of the news agenda by state authorities and powerful business interests - filling spaces left by advertisers in retreat.
The prevalence of state media with pockets as deep as national treasuries, together with the struggles of weakened private media now intensify the prospect of such “capture.”
There is a new reality unfolding for all of us. There are many who don’t think this bastion of democracy is capable of serving any useful purpose. They may not realise it yet, but they continue to hold to such a belief at our continued peril as countries and polities.