Barbados: A threat to press freedom?

An interesting, though brief, episode occurred in Barbados last week that suggested a certain nervousness deriving from the decline in economic growth which the country has been experiencing in recent times, and we are perhaps yet to see its implications.

Governor of the country’s Central Bank, Dr DeLisle Worrell, well known as one of the leading economists not only in Barbados, but throughout the Region as a whole, and indeed in international economic circles involved particularly in the sphere of monetary economics, took a decision to bar journalists from the Barbados Nation newspaper from appearing at future press conferences held by him.

The Governor’s complaint was that the newspaper, through one of its reporters present at a news conference given by him last week, provided an inaccurate version of a statement which he had made on the economy, and in correspondence to the Chief Executive Office of the paper informed that “you should be aware that Nation/Sun staff will not be invited to any future press conference or media event hosted by myself as Governor of the Central Bank” as a result of “a lack of professional integrity manifested in the Nation’s front page headline”.

On Monday, the Central Bank issued the following statement:

“The Central Bank of Barbados respects and embraces freedom of the press and the importance of the dissemination of timely and accurate information and as such has not banned the Nation Corporation.

“The front page of the Sunday Sun of May 11, 2014, carried the headline “Cut Off”. The Bank assures media practitioners in Barbados as well as the public at large that it will continue to keep all media houses fully abreast of all developments on economic and other pertinent matters which fall under its purview, including the Nation Publishing Company, as is normal.

“The Nation Publishing Company will receive all Press Releases and other communications issued by the Central Bank, and all media houses and the general public have free access to the Central Bank’s website, where all our statements, reports, data and speeches, and all other publications are posted.”

There was no indication about access to the Governor himself or media events to be hosted by him.

What, in effect, had occurred was that the Governor considered to be a substantial breach of both ethics and professionalism, an exaggeration of the number of people to be laid off from the Central Bank itself, in accordance with a government decision that in order to contain government expenditure a total of 3000 employees would be dismissed from the public service as a whole.

Governor Worrell has, as the economic crisis in Barbados has deepened, come in for substantial criticism as one of a policy trio comprising the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and himself, for an apparent mismanagement of policies introduced to cope with a recession which Barbados, like other small open economies in the Caribbean and the wider world, has been experiencing. And in this criticism he has been grouped with the two key individuals of that trio responsible for economic decision-making and management.

As antagonism to the dismissals of personnel in the public service has increased, the Governor has found himself placed on centre stage, rightly or wrongly, as a substantial architect of the current austerity programme which the government recently agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after Barbados began to experience persistent negative growth. And in that regard, he would appear to be increasingly perceived as virtually a decision-maker, as distinct from being a mere policy adviser.

This, of course is not a novelty, and in Dr Worrell’s case it has been widely known that he had been an employee of the IMF. As has happened in other countries where Caribbean economists have served a tenure in the Bank and have subsequently assumed senior positions in countries’ economic decision-making systems, there has been a tendency to assume that they have become bearers of the IMF’s policy advice.

Up to the time of writing of this editorial, no senior individual in the Government has ventured any comment on the Governor’s decision to ban a newspaper from directly eliciting information from himself. And the owners of the Nation Publishing company have themselves suggested that with the country experiencing continued negative growth, the highest yet fiscal deficit and a debt to GDP ratio at its highest in 2013, a relative misdemeanor by the press should hardly attract the attention of senior government officials at this time, consequently breaching the tradition of free press access to the governmental system.

The newspaper’s publishers have themselves attempted to paint the Governor’s response as an over-reaction, insisting that they sought to make amends immediately, and implying that the Governor is creating a threat to press freedom way above any threat to his own authority and integrity. And indeed, it would appear to us, in terms of the traditions of the free press in Barbados over many years, that this would be the case.

As we have ourselves experienced in Guyana, the persistent decline of many Caribbean economies at this time, in part the result of the global recession affecting, in the case of Barbados, its tourism revenue in particular, has put some governments under a kind of combined political and psychological pressure hardly experienced for decades. In the case of Jamaica, of course, that country’s recession has been in train virtually since the mid-1970’s, but the press has retained a vigour virtually unparalleled in the Region. And, if the truth be told, the balance of political power in that country, with its two vigorous political parties, has rather inhibited any tendency on the part of one or other party in government to exert pressure.

What is perhaps surprising in the case of Barbados, itself with an established two-party system, is that it has fallen to a public servant, rather than any government personality or party official to issue this threat to the press in a country known for the independence of its public service. And it might well appear that the Central Bank Governor has become such a partisan of the current economic policy, that he has been unable to resist the kind of statement and action more befitting of the political authorities in times of uncertainty and nervousness.

Our hope is that the Governor sees the wisdom of the hallowed separation of powers in the Westminster system of government which Barbados has been practising almost unabridged since its independence. If he does this, he will be accepting the limits of his office vis-à-vis the press and the populace, even as they sometimes go beyond the limits of their own discretion or powers.

We hope for a quick resolution of what appears to us to be an overreaction on the part of one known in the Region as a distinguished academic and public policy adviser; and that the relations between the press and the public institutions of Barbados return to their normal sobriety.


Around the Web