Opinion: Media law

POSTED: 04/3/14 3:00 PM

Every now and then slow government benefits citizens. Take for instance the media law. This attempt at government meddling in the media first came to the forefront in 2007 – indeed, seven years ago when Omayra Leeflang, who was then the Minister of Education in the government of the Netherlands Antilles, promoted the concept. A lot was said about the draft law in that year – mainly how bad it was – and nothing ever came of it.

Even before the Netherland Antilles was laid to rest on 10-10-10, a government department in St. Maarten picked up the initiative in 2010. On June 28 of that year, media were invited to a meeting to discuss another draft media law, but the interest was not overwhelming. Only the Government Information Service (now DCOMM), St. Maarten Cable TV and the Today Newspaper showed up. Marjolein Aarts was at hand as the author of the draft law.

Today has consistently objected to this part of the draft law: the establishment of a Media Council and the fact that this council would be charged with writing a code of conduct for journalists.

The arguments Aarts had in favor of such a code of conduct are – let’s be kind here – laughable. She mentioned the publication of intrusive pictures of traffic accidents and reports about suicide.

Today has its own policy on these particular issues. We don’t like those intrusive pictures so we won’t publish them anyway, and we think that suicides are non-news, so we don’t report about those tragedies either. Maybe it is an idea for the government to instruct the police not to issue press releases about suicides that sometimes arrive in our inbox complete with pictures.

Remarkably, the author of the draft media law had never heard of the code of conduct the International Federation of Journalists published in 1954. This still is, or ought to be, the guideline for professional journalists. Also remarkable is the fact that after this June 28, 2010 meeting, nothing was heard anymore about the media law, until Vromi-Minister Maurice Lake launched an attack on internet-scribe Bibi Shaw in August of last year. He demanded action against what he called yellow journalism, after Shaw published a story that the third Wescot-Williams cabinet was about to fall. The story turned out to be incorrect. So what?

Lake called for measures “for the media in general,” an initiative that caught the attention of VVD-MP André Bosman in The Hague. He called Lake’s plan a threat to the constitutional right to freedom of expression. We do not often agree with Bosman but here he was right on the mark.

After the noise surrounding Lake’s anger over the Shaw-story died down, his initiative for measures against the media in general died with it. Nothing has been heard about it anymore and nothing has been heard since June 2010 about the media law either. The conclusion must be that regulating the media is not a priority for any government the island has ever had since 2007. While this might come across as good news, the bad news is of course the lack of a firm position in favor of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press even though we do not really need such a statement. We know our constitutional rights and no politicians are going to mess with that.

But the calls for media laws keep coming back, if not in St. Maarten, then in Curacao. A group called Social Justice Curacao has revived the issue and this inspired a reader of the Antilliaans Dagblad – a man with a Dutch name living in France – to shine his light over this latest initiative.

The Social Justice club suggests a separation of commercial aspects and news content, a code of conduct, minimum requirements for journalists and a completely free and correct way of functioning for the media in their task of controlling the government.

Like Marjolein Aarts, Social Justice seems to be unaware that there is a code of conduct for journalists. Curacao, or St. Maarten, does not have to reinvent a wheel that has been around for sixty years. The separation between advertising and news content makes sense but newspapers do not need rules for that. They just have to practice it and by doing so, they set themselves apart from those who don’t. In this sense, market rules will make the difference.

Decades ago, the media landscape in the Netherlands was different from what it is today. De Waarheid was the newspaper of the communist party, Het Vrije Volk the newspaper of the leftwing labor movement and Het Handelsblad was there for the establishment. The number of titles in the Dutch newspaper market has gone down over the years, reflecting a new reality, and the party-newspapers have all but disappeared.

In Curacao, with 150,000 inhabitants akin to a medium-sized Dutch city, there are eight daily newspapers, more than twenty different radio stations, and two TV-stations.

The AD-reader who commented on the situation in Curacao is not positive at all about the performance of the media. He laments the lack of quality in journalism on the island. Especially the newspapers fall short of his approval: “Mostly fillers with screaming headlines, a lot of cruel pictures and often articles that do not make sense at all.”

Radio journalism is not much better: “A lot of music, a lot of screaming and blabla that serves nobody. No background information, no depth, no solid explanations.”

No wonder Social Justice also clamors for courses to improve the level of professionalism. Would that really help? In St. Maarten there are hardly any locals with a solid interest in journalism. Bringing in professionals from abroad is a cumbersome process due to the rigid labor laws that lack all understanding and the necessary flexibility to accommodate the industry.

There is one thing to be grateful for: slow government. That almost guarantees that a restrictive media law will ever see the light of day in St. Maarten. This way the government finally achieves something positive without doing anything for it. All we are waiting for now is that flexibility in the labor laws.

How flexible should it be? Let newspaper hire journalists freely, wherever they are from, until there is a situation whereby we are looking at unemployed local journalists. It is not likely this will ever happen: over the past eight years, this newspaper has hired exactly one local writer and he arrived on his own initiative. The labor department has never sent us a single candidate after we published vacancy ads.

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