World Press Freedom Day was observed on May 3, and is dedicated to the autonomy that the press warrants to be able to report on issues without interference from government or political officials. It is a day set aside to remind governments of their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression. In Belize, the media generally enjoys the liberty that press in many other countries don’t. However, this does not mean the local media is not without its fair share of issues. Today, we discussed what press freedom means in a local context with journalist for over 25 years and News Director of 7News, Jules Vasquez. He first touched on freedom and independence of the media.
Jules Vasquez, News Director, 7News: “There are so many people and situations we encounter where people are intimidated by the government or feel that they will be victimized if they speak up and we in the media also know that if you run a foul or if you go hard against a public official you might receive a call from upstairs – some notional upstairs saying “Hey, so and so is threatening to pull advertising.” The fact is we live in a small society and in some cases, not in all cases, in some cases there are public officials or elected officials who can act in a way that seeks to use intimidation as a means to muzzle the media. In fairness I will say it is not something I encounter and it’s certainly not something I tolerate on any level. Yes we have an independent media but we have to accept that we have a public sector driven economy and advertising from the government is very important you know so yes the media is independent but it’s not I believe ruggedly independent because we have seen cases where Kremandala for example has been victimized I believe for not, for perhaps speaking against the corporate interest of large companies or large government affiliated interests and you suffer you don’t get ads. We have gone through that with government in the past and it will be that way in the future. The fact is that we live in an economy where it is hard to operate without some level of commercial involvement from the government. I believe that as media we all have to strive to be as independent and as essential that if you stop advertising on my media house – and people have done it – that it will hurt you more than it will hurt me. It will hurt me bad but it will hurt you because it will reduce the value of your brand so substantially that you will have to do it. So I think that we really have to reach a point where the government is less able to hurt media houses by taking ads out of their newspaper or their tv station or their radio station.”
Vasquez went on to speak on the issue of safety as it relates to reporters, particularly women.
Jules Vasquez, News Director, 7News: “A big issue in the world that journalists are murdered, journalists are threatened, we’re intimidated, they’re made to live in a constant state of fear for their own safety and that of their family. At this point I do not believe, my experience is that we do not have this in Belize and I pray that it never comes here but there is an extremely sinister type of political violence that I have seen directed against Marisol Amaya and I believe that it has a sexist undertone as well because she’s a woman and because she’s with a media house which some may perceive to be pro opposition and that is their perception but certainly it’s not how she behaves. I believe she is ruggedly independent but I certainly have seen and I have experienced in my own time little low level street threats and I don’t lend those any credence but I do see it as something that low level political operatives have done from time to time. I’ve seen Renee Trujillo I’ve seen her targeted as well so I noticed though that because they are bullies and thugs they direct it mainly against women and it’s really revolting and sick. The police in the Facebook era have brought back this thing called spreading rumors or making false reports and that I believe is really sinister. You know it was sickening to me when I heard the Commissioner of Police speak about that for these reasons he’s not charging Channel 7. You know it’s really sinister when we’re hearing that a law person, a law enforcer sorry, is deciding whether or not to bring charges against a legitimate media house with over two decades of reporting and is weighing whether charges should be brought. While the Commissioner made a very coherent defense we don’t need no defense respectfully. I stand by that report and everything that was said in there has been validated completely. It cannot be made into a criminal offense for legitimate media houses who in the course of their duty makes mistakes, it happens from the New York Times to the Guardian UK to every single media house in the world including Channel 7 in Belize, including Love, including Channel 5 we all make mistakes, we try so hard not to make them. You cannot make a false equivalency between a completely fictitious Facebook post and a post from a legitimate media house.”
We also spoke with two reporters, who shared their expectations and the challenges they face working in the media. Paul Lopez from Plus TV has been in the media for two and a half years while Alisha Valentine is going on to her eighth month at Love News Centre.
Paul Lopez, Reporter, Plus TV: “I’ve always been a people’s person in terms of just loving to interact with people. When I first came into the realm of media I learnt the importance of having people friendly approach because I think that’s one of the biggest things that comes with this job is being able to approach people the right way, being able to hear people’s stories, being able to understand what they’re saying, getting out of your own head and getting into the mind and the thoughts of those you’re interviewing, those you’re talking to so that you can properly relay their stories because at the end of the day I believe that we are not serving ourselves but we are offering a service to the people and we’re offering a service to the nation. I think that one of the biggest challenges for me is understanding how to empathize, understanding how to empathize with people. Another challenge which is a big issue right now at the forefront of the media is being able to scent out accurate information, being able to validate your information that you’re sending out.
Alisha Valentine, Reporter, Love News: “What I expected was to get information across. Whether is’ a murder story, a crime story, a political story. I expected travels, I expected to learn new things more than anything I expected to learn new things and to let people know what is happening to put news out there that people want to hear, that people can relate to. I’m going through what I expected to happen but it’s just that we were sort of our hands are tied at some points when it comes to getting a story. Not everyone is readily available to speak to us so that’s the hard part of it, that’s what I did not expect having to be behind persons to get something done especially when it comes to political stories. As a politician you’re leading this country you’re supposed to be readily available to say “Look this is what is happening.” why are you running away from the media ? We’re just doing our jobs. A challenge for me would be when doing a crime story. It’s not easy, it can be easy to get an interview there’s so much behind that; you have to speak to a grieving mother, sister, aunt and it’s hard for us. They might say “Oh she just wants a story.” but you know what just like you we have family members as well and it’s just as hard to see you, to put you behind this mic for you to speak about someone you love dearly.”
The theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day was “Journalism without Fear or Favour.”