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close this bookThe Courier N 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentCurrent media in the English-speaking Caribbean
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Current media in the English-speaking Caribbean

by Dr Marjan de Bruin

The author of this abridged article, who leaches et the Caribbean institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the Mona (Jamaica) Campus of the University of the West Indies, focuses on some of the peculiarities of press and media development in small island Caribbean states.

The English-speaking

Caribbean comprises thirteen independent nations that are members of Caricom (the Caribbean Community) and a few remaining small dependent territories. The total population is about six million. In most of these countries, the majority of the population is of African descent although in Trinidad and Guyana, about half the people are of Asian (Indian) origin.

The sea, whose name unites the islands, is a serious barrier to communication and social interchange between them. it takes as long to go by plane from Barbados to Jamaica (1200 miles direct, but 2000 miles via Miami) as it takes to cross the Atlantic from Paris to New York (3600 miles) - and the latter journey is usually cheaper! And until fairly recently, telephone calls from neighbouring Caribbean countries without a common language were routed through London, Paris or Miami.

The distances make communications difficult. Mail can take weeks, telephone circuits are often overloaded and, in some countries, unscheduled power cuts often disrupt computer systems at the most inopportune moments.

Communication and the media

The Caribbean has a strong oral tradition. This, together with poverty and an estimated general literacy rate of about 80%, makes radio the most popular medium. Recent studies show, for instance, that 99% of Jamaican households reported having at least one radio at home. In Jamaica alone, three large national radio stations between them broadcast nine hours of prime time call-in radio.

In all Caribbean countries, alongside the mass media, 'alternative' medias play an important role in communication for social change. In some countries, the term simply connotes non mainstream operations. In others it refers to alternative formats which are found in the mainstream media. The term also represents the use of other communication behaviour - popular theatre, dance, music, oral history, story telling. It has been suggested that the increased use of alternative media and alternative uses of mainstream media are an indication of the audience's dissatisfaction with the mainstream mass media.

In most English-speaking Caribbean countries, the government owns some of the major mass media, especially electronic. Only recently has the private sector developed its own strongholds in radio and television. Print has always been an area of mainly private ownership. Only the larger countries have daily newspapers; morning or evening papers - although usually not more than two or three. In the smaller countries the press consists of weeklies, or bi-weeklies.

Government ownership

Ownership or control of media houses by governments is recognised as a serious obstacle to true investigative journalism.The economies of all Caribbean countries are heavily dependent on tourism. Stories on environmental hazards and crises which might affect this essential source of income are subject to explicit or implicit (selfl censorship.

Government ownership in some instances means policy discontinuity over time; each new regime imports its own set of administrators and sometimes even entire newsroom staffs. In other instances, where the same party has ruled for a long time, positions within the media are very stable because they are tied to political loyalty.

Private ownership, however, does not mean an absence of potential pressure or political influences. In Trinidad & Tobago, the country's oldest daily - The Trinidad Guardian - recently lost its Managing Director, its editor and six of its top editorial executives, after the owners - a supermarket chain - pressurised the editor to moderate criticisms of the country's new administration. The owners also tried to convince the managing director and editor to dismiss a columnist who was a disaffected and now hostile former member of the new ruling party. In apparent justification, the owners produced a document which suggested that it was the policy of the Guardian not to endanger the commercial prospects of its owners by injudicious criticism of the powers that be. Caribbean journalists attacked the Guardian ownership for what some saw as an attempt to turn a respected newspaper into the public relations arm of a commercial congLomte. Despite the protests, the Guardian's new editor, a veteran of forty years in journalism, argued that the proprietors had good reason to interfere with his predecessors.

The region's oldest daily, The Jamaica Gleaner (established in 1834) went even further. In an editorial it said: 'In our view the owners have a right to oppose the way in which the judgment of the Editor and others is exercised. The right of the Guardian Board to query content cannot be questioned. It is impossible for a newspaper to be run without the input of the Board of Governors.'

Small markets

Most English-speaking Caribbean countries are relatively small in population as well as area. The number of media organizations is limited. The limited size of the market has important implications for the financial basis of the media, especially the part that is privately-owned. It limits the horizontal mobility of media workers - there are simply not that many options - and it makes the relationship between media and sources extremely vulnerable. There are not that many sources either. It also means that most Caribbean media houses have very limited resources. Many reporters have to cover a wide range of topics. Specialised reporting for instance on the environment, or health, is usually not feasible.

One of the major problems in the Caribbean media is the high proportion of imported television programming. The region is geographically close to the United States and satellite broad casting makes access to the Northern networks even easier. In the ten years from 1976 to 1986, the imported content of four large television stations in the region moved from an average of 78.5% to 87%. When the amount of imported content carried by the smaller stations was included, the average increased to 90% of all material televised.

Privatisation and new technologies

Several of the larger Caribbean countries have seen an explosive growth in the electronic media. Jamaica, which has a population of about 2.5 million living in some 620 000 households, and per capita GDP of $1563, has seen the number of radio stations grow from three to nine and TV stations from one two, in a period of just five years.

Trinidad & Tobago, with 1.2 million inhabitants in 300 000 households, and per capita GDP of $4049, went through a similar process, with seven new radio stations and two new, privately-owned TV stations being set up over the last five years.

Barbados, with a population of 260000 living in about 50000 households has long supported two daily newspapers. There are also two TV stations on the island, while viewers can receive television signals from neighbouring islands. This country has the highest per capita GDP in the region ($5562) after The Bahamas ($10,308).

One positive effect of this intensive growth is certainly to be found in the increased employment opportunities for broadcasters. In the past, journalists risked their careers if they disagreed with their employers. Now people have more options. However, increased competition in a relatively small market also enlarges the risk of commercialisation and a lowering of standards. One does not need to undertake in-depth research to discover that locally-produced television is scarce and not always of the highest standard. It is cheaper to buy foreign programming than to produce original content. Some of the graduates of the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication, who performed above average during their training and education in print journalism, can be seen sliding down the standards scale once they enter the mass media as working journalists. Similarly, the standards of newsrooms are not always high. In fairness to the professionals, it must be said that the decline in standards is partly due to the lack of resources in editorial departments. The major newsrooms in radio and television in Jamaica, still depend on typewriters.

Development of new technologies has contributed to two almost opposite movements. On the one hand, greater access to worldwide networks has widened horizons. On the other, the introduction of cable TV offers, at least in principle, the possibility for small-scale communication initiatives, such as community radio stations either for geographical communities or communities of interest (for example, people or groups interested in the environment).

Satellite dishes, VCRs and computers are breaking down traditional communication borders. In the Jamaican capital, Kingston, 28% of households have a dish and 21% a computer. The picture is very different just 20 miles away, in the neighbouring but rural parish of St Thomas, where the figures are just 1% and 2% respectively. New technologies are affordable for the happy few and are increasing the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' of information.

In all of these societies, computers sit uneasily in otherwise nondigital environments. The information that one works with is usually not computerised. Many records are still handwritten, with data kept on index cards. Computerisation is a costly process for which there is rarely a budget.

Once the hardware is available, it is easy to retrieve data from non Caribbean sources. At the same time, it is barely possible - at least at the moment - to tap into Caribbean data sources. There is no commercial Caribbean software. Page make-up and layout programmes, for instance, rely on non-Caribbean electronic clip-art-images and symbols. It may simply be a matter of time before local products develop, but currently, the main constraints are to do with lack of funds.

Journalism

How is journalism faring in this environment? The Caribbean context gives journalism a special professional profile. The small size of Caribbean societies has implications for the use of sources. Access is easier, but it also creates sharper dilemmas where loyalty is concerned: most sources are people you know personally and who know you. Anonymity is almost impossible.

Because the societies are so small, you will meet many of the same people in different roles on different occasions. The small scale of the market makes all enterprises in media and journalism very vulnerable to market forces: the withdrawal of one or two major advertisers would endanger the chances of survival of some media houses.

The situation of the press is most marginal in the smaller countries. In Antigua (population 66000), radio and television are controlled either by the Government or by people with close links to those in power. One opposition paper, a trade union publication, has survived several legal assaults by the authorities over the years. The other, little more than a newsletter, has managed to survive into its second year.

In Grenada (population 91000), journalists complain about police harassment of reporters on duty, and in most of the smaller countries, journalists are uneasily aware of the continuing hostility of long-ruling political parties.

The working environment of journalists in Caribbean media organisations is usually more modest compared to that of journalists in rich countries. There is less technology, smaller staffs and lower salaries. In the smaller Caribbean countries, it is not unusual for journalists to have to combine two jobs. Journalism alone cannot pay the bills.

There is a sharp difference between rich and poor in most developing countries. For large sections of the population, the big decisions will have nothing to do with buying a second or a third television set.

It is more likely to be a simple matter of whether there is food on the table tonight. These different priorities obviously influence a journalist's agenda.

In developing economies, this can create serious dilemmas for the journalists: if you know your story is likely to hurt the tourist industry - which happens to be the main national income earner of your country - will pursuing it be a waste of valuable time? And how do you decide on the relevance of a scoop when people - some of whom are your friends - could lose their jobs?

M.d.B.

Sources

Hilary Brown (1995): American Media Impact on Jamaican Youth: The Cultural Dependency Thesis in 'Globalization, Communications and Caribbean identity', Edited by Hopeton S. Dunn, Kingston, Jamaica, lan Randle Publishers.

Aggrey Brown and Roderick Sanatan !1987). Talking With Whom? A Report a the State of the Media in the Caribbean. Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (Carimac), Kingston, Jamaica.

Aggrey Brown (1995). Caribbean Cultures and Mass Communication Technology: Re-examining the Cultural/ Dependency Thesis, in 'Globalization, Communications and Caribbean Identity'.