Tuesday, 19 October 2010 06:55
Defending his party’s record vis-à-vis press freedom, the Antigua Labour Party’s Gaston Browne has charged the ruling United Progressive Party with doing much worse.
“The Antigua Labour Party’s policy and conduct obviously needed improvement at the time,” Browne said, “but where I’m appalled is having gone through that… I’m just amazed that things have gotten worse under the United Progressive Party.”
His main beef is the perceived lack of dissenting views on the state media, ABS TV and Radio. “Clearly, it is dominated 100 percent by government use,” Browne said. “Last election, ABS carried exclusively UPP content… you have a situation here in which the media, especially the TV media, is totally skewed in promoting the UPP government.” He complained of unequal coverage of ALP events and alleged non-airing of paid ads.
Beyond ABS, he argued that all major electronic and print media, save ZDK, is either controlled by or aligned with the UPP.
He described this state of affairs as “vulgar control of the media”.
But how does the ALP’s press freedom record stand up to scrutiny? Readers on this site have referenced the Observer Privy Council ruling that made moot the ALP’s reluctance to grant broadcast licenses; the press freedom battles of Leonard "Tim" Hector and the Outlet newspaper; and direct and indirect use of the state media to forward the ALP agenda during its lengthy rule.
Additionally, articles like Milton Benjamin’s "Antigua’s Media: Then and Now" in the 2007 CLR James Journal, a publication of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, and 1987’s Talking with Whom, a publication of the Caribbean Institute of Mass Communications, by Aggrey Brown and Roderick Sanatan, explored the less than free, less than diverse media climate in Antigua & Barbuda during the era of the ALP, with Benjamin’s paper referencing Observer Radio's role in democratizing the media.
Benjamin wrote, “prior to the coming of Observer radio, the airwaves in Antigua were dominated by the government broadcast services in radio and television, and by the private radio and television services owned by the Bird family.”
Brown and Sanatan summed up the climate in the ‘80s this way, “denies access,” noting then that the only non-ALP aligned media at the time was the Outlet and, in broadcast, Caribbean Radio Lighthouse and Caribbean Relay Company. That said, an informal survey which I conducted sometime around 2005 among media workers indicated growing concern that the pendulum had begun to swing in the opposite direction; one respondent arguing that “public media have no concept of balance or fairness…ABS remains, even after the change of government, a propaganda tool for the ruling party.”
The latter actually strays pretty close to one of Browne’s assertions. But as for the points re the ALP’s record, Browne said, “it’s not that I’m necessarily trying to say that ALP had a perfect or great media policy, I’m not defending that… yes, I accept that the media policy of the ALP needed improvement when we were in power and yes, there was some forced improvement but ... it’s gotten progressively (worse).”
Browne also argues that lack of a vibrant opposition, not media access, was the real issue back then: “their perceived lack of access was due to their not wanting to be on ABS TV … in our case we want to.”
Of course, the UPP did sue the ALP for access, contradicting this assertion. Browne acknowledges this fight and concedes that “the UPP’s accessibility ought to have been better under the Antigua Labour Party”. But, giving the other side no quarter, he insisted that notwithstanding being the beneficiary of that decision, the UPP does not honour it now that the tables are turned.
“They have now, in contempt of that decision, turned ABS radio and TV literally baby blue,” he said.
Quizzed as to whether he and other ALP spokespersons do not appear on the same public and private media which he says are either UPP owned or aligned, and in fact on the state media, Browne said, “they call when it suits them … it’s not about accessibility, it’s about increasing their ratings.” He later qualified, “I’m not saying we have no access … (but) it is a situation where it is extremely difficult.” He described the perceived use of the state media to promote the UPP agenda as an abuse of power and resources.
A related topic, freedom of information, is another sore point. The related act was one of the United Progressive Party’s early reforms, theoretically embracing the people’s right to know, but Browne was stridently critical of its practical application. “I really think that they should fire the commissioner and staff because they do no work … I’ve written to them … most of the time they don’t respond … (though) we never ask for any information that is not in accordance with the act,” he charged, arguing that while he supports the act in theory, practically, “we’re no better off.”
Asked about the ALP’s media policy if returned to office, Browne said they’d look at corporatizing the state media, somewhat different from outright privatization. “The government could actually retain effective ownership,” he said, “but have some private sector participation (with) the company being run professionally.” He said, as well, that there would be equitable access for the various political parties.
As for defining the relationship between the state media and interests within the ruling party, he said, “I don’t believe that any party in power should be able to monopolize… you have had situations where the UPP have carried their conventions live for hours … (I) do not believe they should carry it in its entirety, but (they) should cover (it) as a news item.”
Invited to look back at the ALP practice with respect to not only election coverage but advertising, leading up for instance, to the 2004 elections, he insisted that their conventions and public meetings weren’t carried in their entirety and returned to his central point that “ALP’s policy and conduct obviously needed improvement at the time; we saw some improvement before we left office … but where I’m appalled is having gone through that … I’m just amazed that things have gotten worse under the UPP.”
The granting of licenses for the establishment of other TV and radio stations will be on the ALP agenda as well, Browne indicated. In another swipe at the UPP, he alleged that the granting of licenses has not exactly been fair; charging that these are given to select people.
Again, Browne acknowledged that the ALP does not have the best record with respect to granting broadcast rights, and that in fact it took a private entity taking the government all the way to the Privy Council to open up the airwaves. Rightly so, he indicated, with respect to the opening up of the airwaves.
But, he added, the crop of smaller stations that has propped up in the wake of that decision are so insignificant, they’re not worth mentioning, while big media is still very much – in his view – party aligned.
Note: A follow-up piece with the UPP’s take on media and access, and its record while in office, is planned.