Media warned on Freedom of the Press day

Posted: Wednesday, May 3, 2017. 2:26 p.m. CST.
 

By BBN Staff:  Today, on what is being celebrated globally as International Freedom of the Press Day, as the Senate Select Committee continues its hearing into very serious allegations of corruption at the Immigration Department, President of the Senate Aldo Salazar issued a stern warning to members of the free press.

Salazar, prompted by a photo that went viral last week showing Church Senator Pastor Ashley Rocke browsing Facebook on his laptop and sneakily checking his phone under his desk, told members of the media that if any such occurrence were to happen again that the violating member of the press would be barred from witnessing the remainder of the hearings. Salazar also said that journalists should not allow their political affiliations to influence their actions, which is absolutely true on one hand.

On the other hand, how unfortunate it is that Salazar, who in previous weeks displayed a great sense of fairness in the hearings, would say such a thing on the day of such an important global celebration. Very ironic that on Freedom of the Press Day, the government appointed President of the Senate, would threaten to bar the media from the National Assembly, which is a public building in which the people’s business is carried out, during an important hearing where corruption of the highest level in government is being “investigated” because of a picture which brought embarrassment to a Senator who is widely considered an extension of the current ruling administration’s influence.

It conjures memories of another shameful incident which took place in the very same “honorable” House on August 26, 2016. It is a now infamous day in the National Assembly’s history. It is the day area representative for Cayo South, Julius Espat of the People’s United Party (PUP) was “named” and forcefully ejected from the House by police for dishonoring himself, according to the Speaker of the House at the time, Michael Peyrefitte. And whether or not the circumstances which led to his spectacular ejection were fair or politically motivated, the free press was also forcefully ejected from the House that day.

It was a disturbing sight, even by Belizean standards, seeing senior members of the media being manhandled and roughed up by police being dragged and hauled off like criminals resisting arrest. And sure, Belize has ranked decently on previous Free Press indexes but it is no secret that both major political parties have threatened political victimization not only to voters and public servants but also members of the media during their respective opportunities in government. There are certain things that happen under the cover of darkness that will never make its way into a Free Press index report.

Currently Belize is ranked 41 out of 180 countries on the Free Press index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. In 2015 Belize was ranked 30th on this very same list. Last year Belize was ranked 36th. So how did Belize slip 10 places on this list? According to Reporters Without Borders: “Coverage of political developments and criminal cases in Belize is polemical because the media have become polarized. This often results in legal proceedings that are long and costly for media outlets. Cases of threats, intimidation, and harassment of journalists are occasionally reported.”

It is in this context, one in which Belize is obviously and quickly losing its place among countries with free and fair media coverage, that Salazar’s comments must be scrutinized. Were his comments made for the benefit of the Belizean people, which he has been tasked with serving or were his statements made to protect an individual whose personal character and interests have openly been questioned? Do Belizeans not have the right to know what the senators who represent them are doing in the National Assembly, though they are paid with public monies? Oh and let’s not forget that you, the Belizean public, are paying even more than ever now with the cost of living quickly skyrocketing. So then, are we not allowed to know that Pastor Rocke would rather browse FB and text under his desk than give his full attention to a significant public hearing, which no-one believes anything will come out of anyway? Just a question to ponder.

“Reporters play a critical role in holding governments accountable for human rights abuses,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Whether they are working in Turkey, Egypt, Mexico, the United States or anywhere else in the world, the press must be able to do their job.” Well, corruption is a very serious human rights abuse because it deprives the people most in need of help with the use public funds. Banning the media from covering a hearing in which blatant corruption is evident, because one senator got his feelings hurt over an FB picture, is not a good enough reason to allow human rights abuses to continue uncovered.

Salazar complained that the media took a picture which showed the screen of Rocke’s personal device. Consider this then, if you walk into any public facility or public area and you take out your laptop and begin scrolling Facebook, do you not open yourself to public scrutiny the minute you decide to do so in a public arena? Or are the rules different when you are a senator with government support? And furthermore, are there any regulations against appointed Senators scrolling FB during a Senate Inquiry? That’s doubtful, but in the same vain that the media can be called out for doing its job, so too should senators be called out for not doing theirs.

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