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Flashback: 2002 - Adventures in Radio Journalism in Antigua

I thought I would reprise what I wrote back in 2002 when I was forced home by the Labour Commissioner of the Antiguan government on Feb. 1, 2002, on trumped-up allegations of working illegally in the country for eight months. I was working as the news and current affairs consultant and trainer for the independent Observer Radio. I also created and anchored a popular Sunday news review programme called The Big Issues - happily still on the air. This was my first statement on my departure and my views on Caribbean media.

Much has been said about my forced exit from Antigua after I went there in April 2001 to train the staff for a new commercial radio station, Observer Radio, which has since become, according to independent survey, the leading quality radio station in the country.

A lot of this comment has been couched in terms of free movement of skilled Caricom nationals and my political skill - or lack of it. Some of it has been brilliantly insightful; too much of it has been partisan carping. Until now, I've been uncomfortable as a reporter being the story. For the first time, I wish to set down my own thoughts on my own experience. What I set down here, though, is a bigger story - that of the Caribbean media.

Not 'deported'
First of all, it has often been reported that I was deported from Antigua. I was not 'deported'. 'Deported' is when the police come for you and you get a free LIAT flight, no juice. It's a small but important difference. I paid for my ticket, just as I had paid for my work permit last November - 3000 EC dollars. One can only receive authorisation to pay this fee after having applied. The government claims it cannot find my application, which was filed by my employer, nor a receipt for a ten-dollar processing fee and thus found a loophole big enough to crawl through.

I was asked to leave. I was told I'd be picked up if I did not do leave voluntarily. I happened to be planning to leave the island briefly anyway. In the presence of station management and legal counsel, I received the personal assurance of the Chief Immigration Officer, Lt. Col. Clyde Walker, that I could 'come back next week' and re-apply for a work permit, and that I would not be treated with prejudice. Nevertheless, a senior immigration officer stamped "Overstayed" in my passport at the airport, effectively banning me for six months. Lt. Col. Walker refuses to rescind the order. I had, along with Julian Rogers, 'overstayed' by six days while trying to have my matter sorted out by the officials.

Each time we expose a flaw in the argument against the government's action we are met with a new piece of idiotic logic. The latest is that there is a cabinet decision somewhere that there are to be only two non-nationals in each media house. There is a Barbadian manager and a Montserratian news director. Montserratians, until now, have longed been considered nationals and do not require a work permit. This cabinet decision from a government that spearheaded efforts to revive a Caribbean Media Corporation!

I have been asked, 'how do you feel?' That's a rather personal question, but imagine how someone feels when met with an injustice that prevents him from practicing his craft. The fact is that I had followed the law completely in respect of obtaining a work permit, only to fall victim to a very Caribbean potion of partisan politics, official incompetence and blind intransigence. I have begun to set down some roots in a country that has become very special to me and to my life's work.

But back to that work in Antigua.

The Observer Group
In March of last year, Julian Rogers asked me to join him in this rare enterprise of creating a radio station from scratch, with the complete moral and financial backing of the Observer Group of companies. The Observer group, publishers of the Daily Observer, is owned by the Derrick family, a multiracial family of entrepreneurs and political activists who have been a thorn in the side of that other prominent Antiguan family, the Birds. By extension, the Derricks are a nuisance to the government that has become the Birds' exclusive preserve since 1951.
It is here that I wish to pay tribute to the Derricks for their extraordinary courage in taking the fight for media independence and democracy to the highest court of law - the Privy Council. For five years, the Derricks laboured against a government unwilling to grant a radio licence but unwilling to explain why.

The landmark decision on the radio station has led to the opening up of the media landscape throughout the Caribbean - witness the raft of licences issued in the last year.

The Derricks and I may disagree from time to time on the form and function of a media organization in a country like Antigua, but here again, they must be credited for having the respect for Julian Rogers and myself as professionals and for giving us the latitude to so conduct ourselves for the benefit of the station and the community it serves. I can think of quite a few media managers and owners in the Caribbean who are bereft of that particular faith in their own people.

At this point, I think it's important to explain what exactly occurred in Antigua before Julian Rogers and I arrived to put Observer Radio on the air on April 15, 2001.

State Department
A US State Department report put its succinctly: "The Government owns one of the two general interest radio stations and the single television station, and another brother is the principal owner of the sole cable television company. The government-controlled media report regularly on the activities of the Government and the ruling party by limiting their coverage of and access by opposition parties. In April, the country's first independent broadcast media, the Observer radio stations, became operational. This radio station, operated by the owners of Observer newspaper, is accessible to political and religious groups of all persuasions, and is utilized occasionally by the Government. The opposition accused the Government of trying to marginalize the Observer radio station by refusing to grant it duty free concessions; ZDK Radio, which is owned by members of the Prime Minister's family, receives such concessions."
I am proudest, not of our hard-hitting talk shows, but of our programming which has been geared towards the spurring the revival of Antigua's grand old Steelband music tradition - it's second only to Trinidad. And grown-ups as well as children listen in droves to our interactive children's quiz on Saturday mornings. In short, freedom of expression also means unlocking the creative expression of a people and being a force for national development; something that the Caribbean media often stand indicted for not pursuing.

The US State Department, through its 2001 Human Rights Report on Antigua and Barbuda (, is but one of several organizations and people to recognize that we had created an independent radio station in a culture of official censorship, bias and outright propaganda. Bear in mind that Antigua is the only country in the Commonwealth Caribbean to have been judged to have held recent elections that were free but not fair, according to Commonwealth observers in 1999. This puts Antigua and Barbuda in unenviable parity with Zimbabwe.

We gave voice to a voiceless majority, particularly as the government moved slowly towards electoral reform. Note, too, that the station - as a forum of free public expression - has played a crucial role in the holding of a public inquiry into corruption and other ministerial misdeeds in a public medical trust fund. Just last week, a senior minister - who had threatened to shut down Observer Radio - was forced to resign after being held accountable and found wanting in the inquiry's proceedings. Those proceedings have been carried virtually exclusively and unabridged by Observer Radio - a commercial radio station. Antigua is no stranger to corruption and ministerial misdeeds.

As long as the station continues to survive repeated attempts by the government to shut it down there is media independence in Antigua. For what we have noticed is that the government station and the Bird family-owned station, which have been found wanting in the area of public access and accountability, have begun to relax their censorship muscles - from talk shows to calypsos.

Voiceless nation
Before we arrived, Antigua and Barbuda had no open access call-in programmes. None. One such programme on the Bird-owned ZDK, "Talk to Me", was on permanent suspension after a brief life. The Government television station, run by a ruling party apparatchik, routinely screens phone calls to eliminate voices critical of the government. Even calypsos that were mildly critical of the Bird administration were routinely censored on the commercial and state radio. We have simply operated from the opposite end of that spectrum, garnering huge audiences, tremendous public goodwill and enthusiastic business support. And it's not just the daily breakfast, daytime and evening talk shows, but emphasis on quality local and Caribbean music, the arts and culture and children's programming.

One of our finest moments has been on our weekly current affairs programme, the "Big Issues" -- a gripping three-hour debate on a government's controversial acquisition of a hotel property. We gave access and equal time to all sides of the debate: government ministers, opposition spokesman and the property owner.

I have left my matter in the hands of Observer Radio Limited, the Barbados Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Barbados honorary consul in Antigua. I am grateful for the support of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), the Barbados Society of Journalists and Media Persons (SJM) and editorial writers in Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, to say the least of countless Antiguans who turned up at the VC Bird Airport to wish me well and who have apparently signed a petition calling for me to be allowed to return. I am grateful, too, to a few supportive colleagues and managers in the region. I fully expect to return to Antigua to resume my work and my life there.

And then, I am asked why would I want to return? My answer is: why not? I've begun to plant roots there. I've been a Caribbean specialist since 1993, almost half my professional life, and it is to the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) that I owe a debt of gratitude. It was there that I learned to be a West Indian. I am proud to be a Barbadian but not just a Barbadian. There are Barbadian journalists working right now in Bermuda and the Bahamas. A Barbadian went on to become one of the great Jamaican journalists, J.C. Proute. How much the poorer would be my own country without the life's work of a Guyanese immigrant named Olga Lopes-Seale? To say the least of the great regional voices and pens of the past - Grenada's Leslie Seon, St Lucia's Alva Clarke, Trinidad's Frank Pardo, Barbados's E.L. "Jimmy" Cozier, who first conceived a Caribbean news agency while at the Trinidad Guardian.

Living in some other Caribbean country does not make me immune to any similar conduct by another government official somewhere else. And this is where my experience speaks more to the state of media in the Caribbean.

A Caribbean lesson
The level of media democracy among Eastern Caribbean States is hardly different from that in the wider Caricom. To the extent that one Caricom Member State can so blatantly defy the precepts of constitutional democracy and violate the purpose and promise of a single space of economic democracy - the Caricom Single Market and Economy - then there is limited media democracy in Caricom. Ironically, one of my last acts in Antigua was to produce a series of public service announcements on the single market for Caricom, featuring the voice of Paul Keens-Douglas and the music of the Antiguan band, High Intensity. They now play on many Caribbean stations including Antigua's state radio, ABS.

But how can we move confidently into a future economic union if there are no shared values and consistent and uniform practice of these basic principles? With the exception of the Barbados Government, the silence of regional governments on this matter as we approach another Caricom Summit is not surprising, but deafening.

The main challenges to my work in Antigua are, quite honestly, no different from the challenges I've faced these past 19 years; hardly different from the obstacles my forerunners have faced. As a trainer, I've come to realize that as much training as our staff has undergone, it is clear that our education systems are failing our students in their intellectual development and in the creation of a Caribbean citizen.

As a journalist, access to information from the government remains a critical issue. Caribbean governments don't keep proper records, to begin with, and have not updated significantly their own management information process since colonial times. Most politicians still view journalists as either appendages of the government or as nuisance leeches on the body politic. Politicians are slow to realize, at their peril, that the media are a window on society, and that a free press is an indispensable necessity for a vibrant democracy, especially in the developing world.

Okay, so you're not wowed by political rhetoric. Then try the neo-liberal economic rhetoric, which has become the new gospel of governance in the Caribbean. If foreign investors like putting their money in stable democracies, then we must also accept that free press is a barometer of economic freedom and political stability. One other challenge I've found recently is the Fifth Column in the Fourth Estate - a small coterie of media figures who, by virtue of their cozy relationship with politicians and powerbrokers - mindlessly do the bidding of their masters.
For example, some regional journalists have regurgitated as fact partisan political accusations that the station is an 'opposition' radio station. To the extent that the free press in a democracy 'afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted', then some will see us as the 'Opposition'. I trust the vast majority of Antiguans to take a very different view.

"The public interest is saleable"
But a critical reason for my return to Antigua is to continue to modify an ongoing, largely successful experiment in Caribbean media. I have worked for both the public and private sector media, and I have learned from the pains and pleasures of both. I am determined to stay in the independent media in Antigua, because it is actually a positive force for 'good' (a dirty word these days). I also believe that the Caribbean commercial media have been among the greatest co-conspirators in the murder of our cultures by virtue of their fixation on the so-called bottom line. The commercial media are vehicles for imported goods, not original ideas. So I'm here to prove that the media can pursue its original mandate of public service, and by so doing make a dollar. To quote the great Caribbean broadcasting Hall of Fame member and diplomat, Hugh Chomondeley, "the public interest is saleable".

So my challenge in Antigua is hardly different from my past challenges elsewhere to doing just as I have described - to perform a public service in a commercial environment. There are success stories in the world of broadcasting, most notably in the UK with ITV, a mighty commercial machine operating still on public service principles. But in the Caribbean, the public service ethos has been ripped off and corrupted. I know politicians, media workers, managers and owners who believe that Public (Service) Broadcasting means government ownership, parliamentary broadcasts, public service announcements, no profits and boring product. It's none of those things. For me, the source of greatest challenge - and greatest reward - has been in bringing a public service ethic to both public and private sector environments.

Sadly, in the land of my birth, an embarrassment of riches now exists in Barbados - in talent, marketplace and resources - but the Barbadian media, with few exceptions, have lately taken the easy road to profits - poor pay, low standards, lax recruitment policies, abandoning public service principles and a defiling of a great and noble tradition. Most Barbadian radio stations are little more than glorified jukeboxes.

So where is Caribbean journalism heading? Down the tubes, I'm afraid, unless more owners and publishers recruit our best and brightest, and pay our people what they are worth. The problem is that owners, whether state or independent, think of journalists as little more than journeymen with pens. We need talent, brains and professional ethics. But Caribbean media owners -- more interested in selling sweet-water than producing quality lemonade -- disregard, disrespect and dismiss our senior people, soak up cheap, young workers with limited experience and education, and ignore talent, content and standards. That's partly what killed the CMC. There is a need for a cadre of media professionals whose job it is to explain the Caribbean-to-Caribbean people. Local radio stations exchanging copy on the latest road fatalities via the Internet is not regional journalism, it's high-speed gossip.

I've heard one general manager, one of the most prominent figures in Caribbean media, lament falling standards while at the same time hiring individuals who could not string together a coherent sentence. And now, the next big obstacle in a globalised economy is not in doing the next newscast but in creating content for Caribbean people and people interested in the Caribbean everywhere.

But there is hope. My hope is for more owners and managers like Winston Derrick and Samuel 'Fergie' Derrick, who for all their high-decibel, high-intensity irascibility, continue to respect the work of professional people whose work is their life mission. As long as we have people like them who can stand up to governments, bully a cowardly business community and allow people who know what they're doing to do their work, maybe there is hope after all.

Hope springs
What other lessons are there to be learned from my adventures in Antigua? On a personal note, I intend to be a part of a movement that will bring professional, scientific training to our media, whether state-owned or commercial. I am reaffirmed my conviction to continue my career track -- which has never been exclusively one of a journalist -- of being a programmer and programme-maker. A free media is not only in the nightly news or the daytime talk show. It's in providing quality entertainment and information that speaks to a Caribbean experience.
All Caribbean countries lack press freedom, one way or the other. Archaic secrecy legislation, a culture of secrecy and low levels of public awareness of what constitutes ethical political conduct exist in all Caricom states.

Caribbean journalists can only obtain a stronger voice in fighting for their right to press freedom by supporting national media organizations and the regional Association of Caribbean Media Workers and maintaining strong ties to international press bodies National and regional organisations could do more if members eliminate narrow petty thinking. Again, if the organization is weak, the battle is lost.

And we Caribbean journalists simply need to pull our socks up. Our reporters need access to clear, unequivocal documents that sets out standards and practices - not company rules but a Caribbean Code of Practice - one that speaks to our peculiar experience and culture while upholding the essential values of public service and ethical conduct. I wrote such a standards and practices manual for radio news and programme staff, which can be adopted elsewhere in the region.

And after all this, you would expect me to say something about the future role of Caribbean governments, but that depends on the people and the extent to which the media improve their political education. Too much is said of Caribbean governments and too little is done, so the less said about Caribbean governments at this point the better.

Postscript: I have returned to Antigua on countless occasions - as an Antiguan resident. The voters of Antigua and Barbuda ended the 28-year rule of the Bird dynasty in the General Elections of 2004. The Caricom Skilled National Act, passed by the country's Parliament, is still not in force, pending the gazetting of the regulations and other bureaucratic paper-shuffling. Since then I became the first Barbadian - along with Julian Rogers - to be accredited as a Caricom skilled national and have used it successfully, and without hassle, in Trinidad & Tobago.

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