Freedom of the press

Dear Editor,

  In 2006, I was the interim President of the St. Maarten Journalists Association SJA. Our goal was to establish a proper foundation for journalists based on professionalism and mutual respect. We had discussions with the Prosecutors’ Office and Police Chief Holiday at the time to get credentials for journalists, allow access to information, and regard for honourable members of this noble profession. Prosecutor Johan de Vrieze recommended that we adopt the American Media Policy and make it our own, which they would support.

  Around 2006, the Central Government of the former Netherlands Antilles attempted to marginalize the media and create a foundation led by individuals handpicked by the government to screen media publications, decide what could and could not be published, and offer censorship and sanctions to journalists and media houses. We resisted then, as we should now. Recently the government of St. Maarten has come under fire for its media mishandling. Both then and now the government failed to recognize the core principles of the media profession.

  As a journalist, our role is to be the watchdog for society, and we are the "third level of Government." Whether you like the media coverage of a particular subject or not, the truth is that true democracy can only remain alive or be attainable where there is a genuinely free press.

  Omayra Leeflang learnt then, and our Government must know now, that the media’s power is absolute and lies in its ability to disseminate unbiased and unbridled facts. We may not always like what the press writes, and we can at times legitimately claim foul if the media gets it wrong. As media professionals, we must ensure that we do not peddle unsubstantiated information or biasedly publish defaming claims about another person or organization. However, there are avenues through which one can seek justice or a retraction if we stray from factual reporting. I have tried to remain behind the scenes, because putting yourself in the forefront can often lead to people attempting to make you the subject of discussion or themselves the victims. It often distracts from the truth or issue at hand.

  Nevertheless, journalism has been my mainstay for much of my life, opening many doors for me which would otherwise have remained shut. I also rely on the media for valuable information, and its importance was noticeable during the COVID-19 global pandemic. We learnt what the world was experiencing through this group of individuals, even during the lockdown.

  Those who are presently seeking to muzzle the media today depended entirely on journalists during the pandemic to disseminate information. After the pandemic and all the theories about accurate information and fake news, I doubled down on the need to have a trustworthy, uncensored and free yet responsible press. Our already troubled world cannot sustain the further manipulation of truth for our people to digest what is left of it. While I was hoping to applaud the government for recognizing the need to give due respect and access to the media, I am afraid I simply cannot.

  I consider it another missed opportunity to recognize media institutions in St. Maarten. The government’s approach seems to come from a very dark place. We cannot allow governments anywhere to dictate what media coverage is allowed or who should be journalists. At the same time, journalists must carry themselves professionally to avoid causing harm to the institution.

  This government has cut through the disguise, penned their dictatorship intent in a proposed policy, and failed to consult the media professionals themselves. I regret this callous decision and urge the government to retract what the rest of the world has judged undemocratic and irrational. The men and women of the press are correct not to accept these power plays and should continue speaking out against any abuse of journalists and, in general, wherever it raises its ugly head.

  Our media must restore their sense of responsibility as the watchdog for society and continue to report this very same anti-individualism and anti-freedom tactic by the government. You have become complacent and replaced investigative journalism with a casual acceptance of press statements, published only so the sale of advertising can continue uninterrupted.

  Unedited and unsubstantiated information distribution through social media platforms now gets a society’s trust. The misguided attempt to control the media is hopefully the wake-up call that journalists and media houses need to recommit to being the third level of government.

  The government must not be allowed to rely on the media to give credibility to its information when it suits its agenda and cast them aside when it does not. Every politician flocks media houses during elections to promote their propaganda. Yet few come to the defence of these men and women.

  Are we to allow the government to use policy to remove freedom?

  I applaud the members of parliament who have come out in clear opposition to this shameful move by the government, and I encourage others to speak out. Let the media unite against those who seek to stifle our long-loved freedoms.

Alfred Harley

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