Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Blogging: The local press takes note

Today's Barbados Advocate makes an historic step: it has an editorial on "The Blogging Phenomenon". Here in Barbados some of the more politically oriented blogs such as Barbados Free Press (BFP) and Barbados Underground (BU) have been wondering--with a good amount of frustration--why the local printed media have gone to almost any lengths to ignore them, at least in written word. Now that has ended; both BFP and BU are cited in the editorial. Kudos are due to these blogs and others that I do not name for having tried to open up public discussion on a range of issues.

The Advocate editorial is interesting. It says that blogs are "not immediately to be compared to a newspaper, so far as the law is concerned", citing the ability to have greater anonymity. But it then concludes "we consider ... the blog is merely the online equivalent of a newspaper [and] should be subject to the same laws in respect of freedom of expression".

The leader column acknowledges that blogs are "here to stay", "democraticsed free speech", and "served to revolutionise the traditional balance between the individual interest in reputation and the right of freedom of expression". Importantly, it notes that "by all indications, the readership of these blogs is in excess of that of the two local daily newspapers". This editorial suggests that blogs have raised the level of debate.

Webster's dictionary defines newspaper (first cited in 1670) as "a paper that is printed and distributed usually daily or weekly and that contains news, articles of opinion, features, and advertising ". It defines a blog (first cited in 1999) as "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer". To me the important distinction is that a newspaper is essentially printed medium, while a blog is not, but is only available on the Internet; both give news, views, opinions, ect. I think it's worth remembering that newspapers represent "old" technology (nothing wrong with that), and blogs are very new (nothing necessarily good with that). Also, Webster's is behind the curve: blogs are not necessarily personal and many are in fact corporate in nature, having several contributors, or actually taking on a formal structure in making online commentary (see Slate magazine, for example, which was formed in 1996 and has developed enormously, now being owned by the Washington Post). In fact, many printed newspapers, not only have online editions of the paper, but also have blogs.

Blogs do not need to be anonymous; in fact many are very public. But anonymity tends to be sought in any environment where expression is not usually free and when one form of reaction to opposition expression is personal attacks. Clearly, some feel that Barbados has fallen into being that kind of country. After only living here one year I cannot personally be definitive about this. But it's a phenomenon I have seen in many countries, whether they are stated to be full democracies or if they are determinedly authoritiarian. Ironically, political commentator, Peter Wickham, has just laid that charge at the feet of the outgoing Barbados Labour Party (BLP) government (see Nation News article published on January 30). He says "Although I firmly believe that the BLP and Owen Arthur served this country well, I am also convinced that more recently they created a climate of oppression (as was the case in 1986) that made people ... uncomfortable." I will watch the reverberation of comments that come from that observation.

The lack of freedom of expression that encourages anonymity can also be created because of the position someone holds. This anonymity does not need to be limited to blogging; it could come from "off the record" briefing, leaked documents, or using some form of pseudonym.

So, in Barbados we find many blogs that seek to air political or controversial issues doing so mainly under cover of anonymity. But we also see bloggers do that for innocent subjects (each person has personal reasons and it's no crime). Whether bloggers need to be covered by the same law as newspapers may be a red herring. At issue is whether free expression exists. The printed media have been accused of self censorship (including by Peter Wickham in his latest article). If that is indeed the case, then therein lies a problem. Within the limits of the laws that apply the press should not be censoring itself: that is the job of an official censor if that organ exists, or public opinion (as expressed by letters or sales), or the law if there is an issue to be dealt with. The issue seems more to be is the printed press playing the role it should. I have read articles in the local papers during the past year that acknowlege that the written press has been under constraints to fully investigate stories. I find that troubling and it is a sharp contrast to what applies in some other countries in the region, such as Jamaica or Trinidad.

If the local press has been shackled has that been a reflection of a certain political regime? If so, will that be continued or changed with a new government? If they were shackled for other reasons, what allows that to continue and why do the laws permit this continuation? Should the local written press be agitating to have its full journalistic freedoms?

Blogs permit expression without limitation, and broadcasting those expressions with little difficulty. Barring or limiting Internet access is tried in some countries as a means of censorship, but it is very difficult and ultimately fails. Once an opinion is aired online it has the potential to be read instantaneously by an audience that is incredibly large--the world is its limit (and who knows if the Universe is not the limit). Blogs (and online versions of newspapers) beat print for immediacy and so are a major threat.

Bloggers come in many shapes and sizes, but essentially they have taken the form of Joe or Janet Citizen saying I can say what I want and the world can read it if it wishes to. Sometimes the views are well researched, sometimes they are not. The printed press is really no different. They control what they want readers to read. Many newspapers are known for their thorough investigative approaches (The Times or The Washington Post) but there are many newspapers who are known to be "economical with the truth" or making up stories, doing whatever is necessary to sell papers. So, I am not going along with false distinctions about content or quality.

I will leave these as my reflections on this subject for the moment.


Karel - Caribbean Public Relations said...

Thanks for sharing this. I think companies all have to wake up to what's going on in the Caribbean blogosphere, and when they do, they'll realise that it can't be ignored.

Esteban Agosto Reid said...

Interesting and informative post!!