His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richard’s keynote address at the Opening Ceremony of the IPI
Address by His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards TC, CMT, Ph.D, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago at the Opening of the 61st IPI World Congress held on Sunday 24 th June, 2012, at 10.30 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency, Port of Spain.
Thank you, Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Carl Eugene Eberle, Chairman of the International Press Institute
The Honourable Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Minister of Public Administration and other Members of Cabinet
His Excellency Philip Charles Kentwell, High Commissioner for Australia and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps
Mrs. Allison Bethel-McKenzie, Executive Director of the International Press Institute
Ms. Kiran Maharaj, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association
Mr. Wesley Gibbings, President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Representatives of the Media
Other Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am very happy to welcome all our visitors from different parts of the world to Trinidad and Tobago. For some of you, this may be your first visit to our country, or perhaps the region and I extend a special welcome to you, with a warning and it is this: We are irresistible. So I have no doubt that you will be coming back, again and again. I hope that, on this occasion, your schedule permits you to experience, even in a small way, our culinary delights and other cultural manifestations, apart from the physical beauty of our country.
I note that the IPI Congress has returned to the Americas, after twelve years, the last being held in Boston. I note, also, that it is the first time that the Caribbean is host to this important gathering and I think it is a good time for you to be here, that is to say, in the Caribbean, in particular.
in the Caribbean, in particular. I say this because, while we, in the Caribbean are well informed of what is happening in other parts of the world, through the media and what I see is being described as the fifth estate, I am not sure that, outside of the Caribbean, the Caribbean is as well reported, as it might be. Perhaps, after this Congress, we may be better known and our news may be more widely sought and disseminated, globally. There is much about the Caribbean that is unique and which is worthy of wider international exposure. You have opportunity also, even though your stay is short, to get a better understanding of the cultures of the Caribbean, the West Indian as distinct from the Hispanic, which informs our behaviour.
I note that the IPI is ‘a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists which has maintained the goals set by its founders, sixty years ago, which are as follows:
Furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom ;
Protection of freedom of opinion and expression;
Promotion of the free flow of news and information and Improvement of the practices of journalism.
Further, I am told that the World Congresses which have been held from 1952, in a different country, each year, focus attention on developments in the country or the region in which the Congress is held, as well as important or ‘burning’ international issues of the day.
My understanding is that today’s membership of the IPI comes from more than 120 countries. That is a far cry from its foundation, in October 1950, by 34 leading editors from 15 countries, who came together, at Columbia University, New York. That group of pioneers were convinced that a free press would contribute to the creation of a better world. Lester Markel, former Sunday editor of the New York Times, one of the founders, is reported to have said: “There is a requirement on each of us to advance the course of journalism wherever it is practised. We should strive to correct the distortions and to dispel the fogs that cloud the relations among countries. We should do our utmost toward that end – for our own sakes, for the sakes of our nations, for the sake of the world. This is what IPI means to every editor.” The founders left Morningside with a clear vision which went beyond a free press, which is seminal and the media industry generally.
I am impressed by the genesis of the IPI and I am arrested particularly by the words attributed to Mr. Markel: “to dispel the fogs that cloud the relations among countries”. In considering those words, I could not help thinking of the diplomatic arena where agents have a similar mandate. I therefore asked myself whether journalists ever thought of themselves as diplomats and I may not be far off the mark, if the answer that occurs to me is “hardly likely”. Some may shun the description, because there is a popular myth (it is only a myth) that a diplomat is one who is paid to lie for one’s country and journalists, after all, must give the facts as they are, with no cover ups.
I invite you, Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, to give some thought to the possible similarities between your own mission and that of the practitioner of the diplomatic art, in the context of the vision of your founders. I am keenly aware that the diplomatic process sometimes affords and requires more time to achieve results, while in your business, stale news is no news. Lest you misunderstand, let me make it clear that I do not advocate compromise on the part of the media but rather, a deeper and perhaps broader understanding of the description which you yourselves have given of your executives, editors and journalists as people “who decide what makes front-page international news – people who create key messages and
spread the word around the world in a matter of minutes.” Your influence in world affairs cannot be denied and one need not harp on the attendant responsibilities.
Within the recent past, particularly, we have seen the critical role that the media has played in world affairs. World opinion has been galvanized as a result of media reporting and the course of history has turned accordingly. Personal safety has been eschewed in the interest of ensuring world-wide awareness of and sometimes participation in events as they have unfolded. This is the inevitable evolution, a result of modern technology, of the field in which you have chosen to labour. As we are witnessing, the risks for media personnel are ever increasing, as they are for diplomats, in a changing world environment which does not guarantee safety. The dangers for foreign media, as for local, are very real, in areas of conflict.
Journalism is no walk in the park, so to speak. The reports of 110 journalists killed in 2009 and 66 in 2011 give no comfort whatsoever and the record of deaths over the last five years should lead to sustained thrust in the international arena in the matter of impunity for those who threaten, harass or kill journalists, which impunity seems to be the norm. Perhaps the time has come for some form of internationally recognized immunity to be agreed, such as that afforded agencies such as the Red Cross, so that the risks to journalists may be minimized, if not eradicated. This cannot be a concern confined within the IPI. The discussion falls within your Session IX A: “Following the Money Trail – Covering Organized Crime and Corruption”, which ought to make room for examining the situation of journalists in areas of conflict, referred to earlier, with the possibility of laissez passer in mind, if that is not already in prospect. This session, I feel certain, will point to the connectivity among nations and I note that you are asking yourselves the question, among others: “How can media deter corruption?” I dare proffer a question of my own: “How do you maintain your independence of agencies involved in the fight against corruption, including the police?”
You have chosen as your theme: “Media in a Challenging World – a 360 Degree perspective.” From the point of view of a layman, I think that the eleven topics, one of which I have already mentioned, are well chosen. They are all current and provide ample opportunity to show the connectivity among countries and regions of the world. I have no doubt that your distinguished moderators and panellists, representing a wide geographic spread, will do justice. If I may, I would like to make a few comments on some of the other topics that you have chosen to discuss. The topic “Moving from the Newsroom to the State House: The Journalist as Political Mouthpiece” I believe will resonate intensely with us, in Trinidad and Tobago as, while it is not new to us, the incidence of movement from the newsroom to the official enclave has increased, within recent times. Reaction has been varied and it may well be useful for parameters in the context of independence to be aired, with a view to better understanding on the part of the public.
I trust that you will come away from Session VIII, “Manipulating the Media: Government Advertising as a Reward or Punishment for Media Outlets” with clear strategies that will enable you, by the evidence of your work, to assure your various publics of an independent and responsible media which does not rely on the one who pays the piper.
I hope that, in Session IX – “Going beyond Borders: Covering Breaking News in Your Own Backyard and Making Sure Your Story Gets Out to the Rest of the World” - the discussion will make it abundantly clear that with major international networks springing into action, sometimes putting their best at risk to get the story, the story from the perspective of the local media must have significant space. Local content, including from the cultural angle, cannot be ignored or overwhelmed, as there is serious danger of truth being sacrificed and the real story being lost to the world.
Regarding Session 11: “The State of the State-Owned: A look at the Role of State-Owned Media in Latin America, the Caribbean and Elsewhere”, we are all aware that in some countries, the control exercised by the state media is not muted, in others it is less so. I believe that the reality of political systems as they exist and the will of the people within them, must inform the conclusions at which you arrive and the way forward.
That you are dedicated to the improvement of the practices of journalism speaks to your clear understanding that one cannot ‘wing it’, as they say and that there is a responsibility to train recruits to the service, in every aspect of the work. Career development must be a part of the plan, with some serious lessons in language arts and communication skills including grammar having a central place. Here too, one ought to take account of the old-fashioned and perhaps disparaged editorial decision-making exercises, which may facilitate the distinction between truth and rumour, while ensuring literate accounts. In this context, I am mindful of the idea that news is not just a product to be sold. It cannot be a free service but it must serve the public interest. Moreover, your role as educator cannot be set aside. The responsibilities are onerous.
That having been said, I think it is unfair to constantly blame the news for reporting or not reporting, as the public would like. I believe that, even in schools, people should be taught appreciation of news. You stir passive audiences whose reactions may sometimes be extreme, but I am of the view that, in this regard, there is a duty beyond media practitioners.
Let me say, for what it is worth, that the internet, the fifth estate, cannot replace the media. It is a very useful and marvellous development which attests to the genius of man. Some may regard it as one of the challenges which you face, but I see it rather as an instrument which can facilitate. There ought to be no competition which can have the negative result of sensation replacing responsible journalism.
Let me say, further, what you already know, that is to say, that challenges will not disappear. Indeed, given the trends, they may well increase, but your press freedom missions can have positive effects on dealing with situations that your colleagues world-wide confront. In your own words, these missions are intended “to show solidarity with local media suffering from intimidation and to enter into dialogue with key decision makers who can influence media policy.” In this context, the art of diplomacy can yield positive results.
The media, having played a significant role in the liberation of peoples, would hardly be willing to appear to be enslaving itself in any form. Nevertheless, the guiding principle of responsibility must be critical to your endeavours. You are taking a 360 degree perspective, in three days. It is a herculean task, but I hope that you will come away from Trinidad and Tobago with significant, clear results which will assist you in lifting the bar as you continue to develop the service that you are called to offer. I wish you well in your deliberations. May this Congress be a most memorable one. Thank you, Ladies and Gentleman, for the courtesy of your attention.