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Racapturing the islands

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

I am just back from a fantastic two days in Barbados where Caribbean journalists got together, on their own steam and without prompting from anyone else, to discuss the quality of regional reporting of disasters and ways to improve on the quality of performance in this important area.

Now no longer at the helm, I can dispense with measured modesty over the work of the 17-year-old Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) by saying that I know of no other regional NGO that has achieved so much, with so little.

Our new president, Anika Kentish of Antigua & Barbuda is a respected, competent journalist and leader and I am certain she will continue the struggle with dignity and pride.

Last week’s event brought together representatives of eight national media associations and five national media focal points from Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, St Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and T&T.

We were the ones doing the inviting. It was our event. And who responded to the invitations? The Caricom Secretariat, the Caribbean Regional Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), the Caricom Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), the Public Media Alliance of the UK (PMA), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), UNESCO, UNIC and the Latin American and Caribbean Alliance of IFEX–the free expression organisation with which the ACM is affiliated and whose parent body financed the exercise.

This was no gravy train. There were no freecos on offer. Just Caribbean journalists and some partners concerned about the future of the Caribbean space we occupy.

But even as we spoke on Saturday, Jamaica was being rocked by a magnitude 4 earthquake, Guyana’s seawall at Uitvlugt in West Demerara was being breached by giant waves off the Atlantic and, on Sunday, uncharacteristically heavy dry season rain caused flooding in parts of east Trinidad. Throughout the region, high surf episodes threatened coastlines and, in some cases, were accompanied by sargassum invasions that threatened fisheries, tourism and seaside aesthetics.

A significant part of the preparedness matrix is the free flow of news and information about realities on the ground. The exchange of views in Barbados however confirmed that there needs to be much more work on the relationships involving disaster management officials, the governments under whose banner they function and the media who are expected to facilitate the flow of potentially life-saving information to citizens before, during and after dangerous events that have the potential to become disasters.

It appears that everywhere there is an insistence on preserving a culture of information control and a tendency toward secrecy over openness.

Following last year’s hurricane disasters, for example, the tourism minister of Sint Maarten explicitly advised against the arrival of foreign journalists while, in other instances, there was a clear dilemma created by the need to suppress worst-case scenarios while not shutting down the prospects for external financial aid.

In the end, it was the heroic interventions of local journalists on the ground that most clearly told the stories that needed to be told. Shadowy “bloggers”, “false news” carriers and prominent Facebook trolls remained under their beds–only to re-emerge in full fury when the dark clouds disappeared.

By the time we were through on Saturday, it was clear that CDEMA–which had responded magnificently to last year’s hurricane events–the region’s development agencies, and the representatives of journalists’ organisations throughout the Caribbean were on the same page.

We all appeared to concede that this region is ours and as in Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite’s poem, South, we endeavour to “recapture the islands’/bright beaches: blue mist from the ocean/rolling into the fishermen’s houses…” We all agreed that turning peril to disaster required human beings and their willingness/ability to engage the challenge. We’re not there yet.


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