Monday, March 27, 2006

Local Journalists Welcome The Suggestion of The Constitutional Review Commission that Freedom of The Press and Access to Information in The Bahamas Receive Constitutional Protection

Advocates Want Freedom of The Press to be Included as part of the Principle of Free Expression in The Bahamas

Constitution May Protect “Freedom Of The Press”

By Candia Dames

Nassau, The Bahamas

27 March 2006

Local journalists, long frustrated by what they see as a general lack of access to public documents, are welcoming a suggestion by the Constitutional Review Commission that freedom of the press and access to information receive constitutional protection.

"I have to say that it is a pity that we need a constitutional amendment or an amendment to the law at all to ensure what should have been the prevailing situation all along," said Sir Arthur Foulkes, a veteran journalist, who is also a former Cabinet Minister and a former diplomat.

Sir Arthur was a member of the opposition delegation at the Constitutional Conference in London in 1972.

The Constitutional Review Commission, which presented its report to Prime Minister Perry Christie last Wednesday, said it heard from a number of advocates who want freedom of the press to be included as part of the principle of free expression.

"It cannot be denied that a free and unbridled press is one of the most important institutions in a democratic society, and may be deserving of constitutional protection," the report says.

It would be in line with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees "the freedom of worship, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petition to the government for redress of grievances."

The Constitutional Review Commission’s report also pointed out that with freedom of speech must come access to public information.

"The right of free expression embraces the right to impart and receive information, and thus it is not surprising that some Constitutions link the right of freedom of information to that of free speech," the report says.

"Some provide for extensive rights of freedom of information, such as the South African model, which provides a right of access to information held by the state.  Others do not elevate it to a constitutional right, but have adopted freedom of information laws."

Wendall Jones, CEO of Jones Communications Network, believes that a Freedom of Information Act would be "a step in the right direction."

"It has taken the framers of the constitution or those who are interested in constitutional reform a long time to really put forward something that should have been enshrined in the constitution from Independence of 1973," Mr. Jones said.

"Of course we always assumed that we had freedom of the press in this country.  We know that we do not have a Freedom of Information Act, but once we have a Freedom of Information Act in The Bahamas it is hoped that people would understand what the Act is all about and it would not simply be something on paper, but that public servants in particular would understand that the press has a right to certain information."

Jerome Sawyer, a highly-regarded journalist who is the news director of Island FM and Cable 12, said access to information would give rise to much better reporting.

"We would be able to accurately give information that we normally now have to get from unnamed sources and people who are secretly giving [us] information," Mr. Sawyer said.

"I think it would also give some more credibility to our work because a lot of times we are operating just off of hearsay information we receive as opposed to being able to access actual data and actual information."

Mr. Sawyer said making freedom of the press a constitutional right would benefit, not just journalists, but all Bahamians.

"I think many people in the press are intimidated by the possibility of legal action and for that reason a lot of stories are not even touched," he said, but added that responsibility must always be a priority of every good journalist.

Carlton Smith, deputy general manager of news and special projects at the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas, also spoke of the importance of journalists exercising a "serious level of responsibility".

"Freedom without responsibility is a dangerous weapon and it could destroy as opposed to build a nation," Mr. Smith said, "but freedom with responsibility is a catalyst in helping in the positive growth and development in a developing society."

He believes that enshrining freedom of the press in the constitution "would be a significant accomplishment in helping to promote true democracy and assist in the national development of our country".

With respect to freedom of the press, Mr. Jones opined that there are many press people who have abused their freedoms even though there is nothing enshrined in the constitution.

"It is hoped that when it is enshrined in the constitution and when we do have a Freedom of Information Act, that members of the press would be responsible and understand that even though this is enshrined in the constitution they have a duty to the public to be very responsible," he said.

Sir Arthur, meanwhile, said there is a culture of secrecy in government that goes back many decades.

"It’s a culture where civil servants seem afraid to give people information that rightly belongs to them and that they ought to have access to," he said.

"That should have been the ordinary state of affairs.  It’s about time that culture is broken and it’s about time that [members of] the public [are] allowed through the press to have all the information to which they are entitled."

Sir Arthur also expressed disappointment that there is no press association in The Bahamas although there has been a lot of talk about establishing one.

"[We need] to speak with one voice as it regards the rights of the press and the duty of journalists and the media to report to the Bahamian people," he said.

"Somebody put it like this: we’re like the amplifier, the loud speaker to broadcast to people what is happening with their affairs."