By Alicia Wallace
We have a media and communications problem in The Bahamas. Some would have us believe this is a reflection of the competence and work ethic of journalists, avoiding their own responsibility.
While I should not have been shocked, I was disappointed by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ speech, from start to finish, at this year’s Bahamas Press Club Awards. In it, he expressed great displeasure in the work of the press which is often a reflection of his performance.
It is now abundantly clear he blames the press for his loss of popularity points, and that he has decided against self-reflection, or even being open to feedback on his positions, actions and inaction over the past six months. It is unfortunate he carried so much blame only to lay it at the feet of the people who do the critical work of keeping Bahamians informed.
In his speech, Minnis — an obstetrician and gynecologist now serving as Prime Minister — attempted to tell journalists how to do their jobs.
He highlighted the “obligation to report on policy matters” and accused the press of reporting on “less substantial” stories he deemed to be much easier to cover.
This is simultaneously laughable and infuriating, particularly when it seems near impossible for the press to obtain statements from at least one Minister.
It was reported that RISE, the Conditional Cash Transfer project, was cancelled and it took days to get a rather generic statement that offered no insight.
Minnis bragged about the appointment of a Press Secretary, but is there a real benefit to the Bahamian people, or does it allow Ministers and Members of Parliament to avoid the press and scapegoat a person who can offer no substantive comment without their direction? If the Press Secretary exists to limit or delay access to information, we can certainly do without that liability.
Interestingly, Minnis encouraged journalists to “give their readers and viewers a more global perspective”.
While it is beneficial to know what is happening throughout the region and all over the world, many Bahamians are barely able to keep up with national news; not because of incompetence or disinterest, but because of the time-consuming, energy-sucking struggle to make ends meet.
Tasked with working more than one job because we’re not even talking about a living wage, meeting household responsibilities, waiting for unpredictable lengths of time for buses that do not run on a schedule or even stay on route and exercising financial and culinary creativity to feed ourselves, who can really dig into comparative politics?
If RISE is cancelled, jobs are lost, and the Prime Minister is talking about increasing pay for Members of Parliament, most of us would rather not delve into international news.
In fact, when we do dare to talk about global affairs and make comparisons, party operatives are quick in their attempts to shut down conversations that open eyes to possibilities or spark ideas which deviate from the norm — a norm that benefits the elite.
According to Minnis, “The best journalism criticises, celebrates, and inspires”. He bemoaned the “negativity and cynicism” of journalists, even venturing to say news reports are predictable. The news, however, is not fiction. Journalists report on what is real, what exists and what is verifiable. It is not their job to give us the will to carry on. It is not their job to make us feel good — or bad — about the state of the nation. Minnis even noted himself that journalists are not to champion any organisations or causes, so it is strange he would want the news to be more inspiring and positive than the reality of this country and its governance.
We, the Bahamian people, want to read about the Freedom of Information Act. We want to know what is happening with the RISE program and how people are accessing social services benefits. We want to have access to the bills being debated in Parliament. We want to be a part of the decision-making process.
This does not mean, however, we do not want follow-ups on stories that leave us without critical information because no one is available to answer questions. It does not mean we don’t want to hear from the people who have access to and a long-term relationship with information, whether they are bringing nothing but facts or offering further commentary as fellow citizens of this nation. It does not mean we will support or condone a speech that belittles or attempts to limit the people we depend on to bring us information that, quite often, we would never get from the source.
Non-jokes about intimate partner violence and the failure of MPs to disclose are just two stories that heightened our awareness of pervasive issues of national concern, sparking movements to shift culture.
The press cannot be blamed for national sentiments about any government administration, political party, or political figure.
If any of these bodies or individuals are particularly concerned about their image or their work, it is advisable for them to reflect on their words, deeds and misdeeds and how they measure up to our demands. If they want to read and hear reports of good governance, the first step is to practice it.
Freedom of the press is real and trying to stifle or suppress it will not get the job done.
As the Prime Minister said: “There are many wonderful and positive stories reported by the press, though I sometimes believe there can be even more.”
Journalists could report on the enactment of Marco’s Law. They could report on the consultative process and passing of the highly anticipated Freedom of Information Act. They could report on the fulfilment of promises like term limits for Prime Ministers. They could report on positive, exciting, endorphin-inducing events, but they need to happen first.
It’s time to focus on making the news we want reported. All Bahamian citizens, whether in the Cabinet or Parliament or not, need to recognise our role in the governance of this country and immediately cease the shirking of personal, professional and national responsibility. Do something newsworthy and then dare the press to ignore it.