By Fabian A. Badejo
September 1st is (National) Press Day on St. Martin – that is, assuming that this tradition continued from the days of the defunct Netherlands Antilles. Even when the island formed part of that constellation, the celebration was never consistent nor continuous, which in itself, was (and still is) testimony to the lackadaisical attitude of media practitioners towards their very raison d’etre.
Is there really anything to celebrate on a day like this here on St. Martin? The founding fathers of modern journalism on the island – Joseph Lake Sr., Mervin Scot, et al – would be rolling over in their graves to see that the foundation they laid has been overgrown by shrubs.
This is not to say that we do not have freedom of the press, the most important element that is the focus of Press Day. That freedom is an integral part of the freedom of expression which is enshrined in our so-called constitution. But having freedom of the press does not necessarily mean that we have a free press. The latter usually manifests itself in a professional, critical, fair, and balanced manner, dedicated to seeking the truth and to being the voice of the voiceless.
Freedom of the press in St. Martin is anchored firmly on the private ownership of the media. Out of the dozen or so radio stations here, only one is government-owned and operated and that one is perhaps the least listened to. It is so that in the aftermath of the worst disaster that ever hit the island in the form of Hurricane Irma almost a year ago to the date, it was a privately-owned radio station that became (and indeed was called by government ministers) the “official” radio station, broadcasting news and information sanctioned by the authorities.
Where it concerns the written press, government does not own any newspaper. The same goes for television. The democratization of the media that the Internet and social media platforms have brought about further cements the freedom of expression on the island.
However, freedom is not free, and every right derived from that freedom carries with it a set of obligations, the most important of which, in a colony like ours, is to be a responsible vehicle for the liberation of the people, in other words, to be always in solidarity with the people, informing them, educating them, entertaining them, and defending them from any and all streaks of authoritarianism, while being an effective check on the excesses of power and the powerful.
Can we, by these standards, truly speak of a free press on St. Martin? Let us start with solidarity and unity among the press corps.
We who often criticize the political class for lack of unity, where were we when one of us – Gromyko Wilson – was given the repugnant taste of overbearing and overzealous misuse of power by agents of the state while he was doing his job? How is it that up till today we have failed to even have an organized body to represent us as a professional entity? What, in fact, is our claim to professionalism when all we do most of the time is carry press releases verbatim while we don’t distinguish between an allegation and a proven fact?
How could we be the voice of the voiceless when we don’t even hold our officials accountable for the murder of an inmate in state custody almost two years ago? How could we ever be a responsible vehicle for the liberation of our people when we publish full page, racist ads, mocking and demeaning our elected officials and by extension our people?
Today should be a day of serious soul-searching for all of us engaged in this so-called Fourth Estate; a day of profound introspection, perhaps a day of an unreserved apology to the people we serve for not being what we should and ought to be for them.
In this era of “Trumpism” where information we dislike is labelled “fake news”, where facts are sacrificed daily on the altar of untruths; where reality has become a mirage in the desert of narcissism; where calumny, libel, character assassination, are the stock in trade of petty minds with crab mentality… In this age where it is okay to throw stones and hide your hand, where we have become inured to the suffering of others, where the dearth of true leadership has become the new normal… it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to have a Happy Press Day! Not with Truth often finding itself in a hole while falsehood rides high and mighty on the expressway of our mundane lives.