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Arresting Our Fourth Estate

Arresting Our Fourth Estate
July 17
20:34 2019

By: Osmany Salas

Prime Minister Dean Barrow, through Barrow and Williams, has written to all media houses, warning that any re-broadcast, re-publication or repeating of F.T.C.’s allegations against him may result in a civil action.

I felt a chill come over me when I heard the statement above on last Friday’s news. That statement made me wonder: What is more important? The personal image and credibility of our elected leaders, or the public’s right to be informed?

But, more importantly, that statement made me hark back to current and past cases of sliding press freedoms in other parts of the world as well as in our own country.

I do not fault our Prime Minister for convening a press conference to attempt to clarify the allegations of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent agency of the United States government after those allegations were made public. A press conference by definition is an interactive forum for journalists and media houses to obtain important information to pass on to the public.

However, to follow up that press conference with an attempt to muzzle the press is disappointing and extremely worrying. The Libel and Defamation Act states that publication of a “fair and accurate report published in a newspaper or broadcast of proceedings of a public meeting” shall be considered privileged unless it is proven that such report or publication was published maliciously. Our laws allow persons to sue media houses if they feel that they have been victims of libel and defamation. However, to warn media houses “that any re-broadcast, re-publication or repeating of F.T.C.’s allegations” may result in civil action reminds me of the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” where Police utilize a psychic technology to arrest and convict criminals before they commit their crime.

In any part of the world, the prior restraint of publication of news is one of the cornerstones of a totalitarian regime.

The role of the media – the fourth power or estate – is a fundamental element in any democracy. A functioning democracy depends on the separation of powers into legislative, executive and judiciary branches. (This separation of powers in Belize has been significantly eroded over the years, but that is the subject of another article.) It is universally accepted that the media or press is the fourth power and for good reason.

A South African journalist recently wrote: “The purpose… of this fourth element is to act as a counterbalance, a systemically opposite force that is to report, verify and question matters of governance, public matters as well as commercial ones, conducted by the powers we the people have entrusted it with and bestowed upon.”

Freedom of the press has been one of the hallmarks of our democracy that we should be proud of in Belize. While investigative journalism is in short supply in our country, the press does attempt to keep us informed even though the information is invariably imparted via different shades of political blue or red. It is then up to the consumer of the news to sift through the biases to determine what is fact and what is editorialized. By and large, though, there have been few attempts to muzzle the press. There have been the notable libel and defamation suits over the years, but these have been after the publishing of alleged libelous material. It would be a stretch to refer to these cases as attempts to muzzle and intimidate the press, unlike the recent salvo from the Prime Minister’s attorneys.

Less than two years ago, a well-known journalist was mistreated at the hands of the Police. On September 7, 2017, Krem’s Marisol Amaya was attacked while executing her duties as a reporter covering the tear-gassing of Belizeans at the Tower Hill Bridge.

Three months earlier, in May 2017, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives allegedly assaulted Ms. Amaya by snatching her phone/camera and threatening to destroy it. According to, Plus TV cameraman Cirilo Choco later filed a police report in relation to being assaulted with a pen by another person in the Sergeant-at-Arms’ group.

These incidents should be seen for what they are: A gradual progression of a worrying trend where the press is seen as an annoyance and threat rather than the fourth fundamental element of our democracy that should be protected at all costs.

The day after Marisol Amaya was mistreated by the Police in the Tower Hill incident, the Prime Minister’s wife, the Special Envoy for Women and Children, came to her defense saying: “As a citizen, I embrace the concept of a free press, given the role of journalists in a democratic society. The rights of journalists are enshrined in the Belize Constitution (Chapter 4), and they must, therefore, be afforded all rights and privileges as citizens of Belize.” (Mrs. Kim Simplis Barrow, September 8, 2017).

Let us take heed of Mrs. Barrow’s wise words. Let us also listen to the South African journalist who I quoted earlier:

“Facts are supposedly always true. Yet, facts don’t necessarily constitute ‘The Truth’. The Truth requires more than facts alone. It requires intellect, the ability to connect the dots, the ability to discern patterns, the ability to aggregate and summarise them into statements of cause and effect. This is where the press steps in.”

It is essential that we allow the press to do their job freely and without hindrance. As the fourth power in our democracy, the press provides “a vital role in discerning fact from fiction and reporting of that from a neutral, unbiased perspective”. Instead of muzzling the press, they should be given all the space needed to do their jobs effectively. Mrs. Barrow reminds us that this is the right thing to do because freedom of the press plays a vital role in a democratic society.

  • This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent the people, institution or organization that the owner may or may not be associated with, in a professional or personal capacity – unless explicitly stated. Any views and opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company or individual.

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