Not for the first time, perhaps the fourth, and as this newspaper celebrates 52 years of fearless journalism, we are duty-bound to point out to the commissioner of police the clear differences between the role and function of a free press and his own role and responsibilities.
The current matter is the commissioner’s response to the courageous statement by the Media Association (MATT) over the seizure of the cellphone of political activist and former government minister Devant Maharaj. Mr Maharaj had refused to reveal the source of information he posted on social media relating to recent bomb threats against some secondary schools. The commissioner is dead wrong when he asserts that “no right-thinking journalist would think about source protection, when it comes to possible threats and acts of terrorism”.
The protection of sources is a fundamental pillar in the edifice of the operation of free and independent media all over the world. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) said, in a decision concerning proposed legislation in Jamaica last year aimed at protecting personal data, that such legislation should safeguard media from having to reveal confidential news sources and other proprietary information. “We propose to Jamaican legislators that they legislate on the necessary confidentiality of news sources,” the IAPA president said then.
Clause Four of the European Charter on Press Freedom says this about the protection of sources: “The protection of journalistic sources shall be strictly upheld. Surveillance of electronic eavesdropping on or searches of newsrooms, private rooms or journalistic computers with the aim of identifying sources of information or infringing confidentiality are unacceptable.” This document was signed in 2009 by 48 editors-in-chief and leading journalists from 19 countries in Europe, members of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
In his response to MATT’s statement, the commissioner misses the point completely when he questions the association’s president about her connection with Mr Maharaj, and his presumed association with journalism. The MATT statement, daring in its analysis of this issue, noted Mr Maharaj typically “clones some tools of journalism”. It does not recognise him as a media practitioner. It noted importantly, however, that the search which resulted in the seizure of his cellphone should be watched and queried—not only by media people, but also by bloggers, trade unions, calypsonians and others making public statements. In doing so, MATT correctly locates the issue of press freedom in the wider context of the right to freedom of expression by all people. It noticeably stopped short of endorsing the image or the actions of Mr Maharaj, but noted the potential for ordinary citizens and organisations whose outspokenness could be imperilled by police actions.
As has become his style, the commissioner was again shooting from the hip, his thin skin forcing knee-jerk reactions without fully grasping the full import of the message being conveyed. He described the statement as “unfortunate”, not troubling to consider the analysis of the oddity of applying a Summary Offences law in an investigation which would benefit greatly from the utilisation of more modern pieces of existing legislation. These include the Interception of Communications Act or the Anti-Terrorism Act.
This is a matter which requires clarification.