Presidential press conferences

On May 10 this year, the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) called on the Jamaican Government to urgently resume traditional post-Cabinet press briefings. Up to that point, astonishingly, no briefing had been held since November of 2017 and prior to that they were held irregularly. This was a flagrant dereliction of the government’s responsibility to the people of Jamaica, the media and modern governance principles of openness and accountability.

Lamenting the situation, PAJ President Dionne Jackson Miller had said  “This is unacceptable. For years, the weekly meetings have been the forum in which reporters have been able to question Government Ministers on matters arising from the weekly Cabinet meetings, as well as other issues of national interest as they arise. They have been held regularly by previous administrations, both JLP and PNP, and we call on the Andrew Holness administration to continue this valuable democratic tradition”.

It should be noted that despite the post-Cabinet briefings not being held, PM Holness held a quarterly briefing for the media.

Last week, the Jamaican government announced it would resume the post-Cabinet briefings.

The information ministry, in a release, said Cabinet discussed the importance of reviewing the present framework of the weekly press briefings to ensure that the structures are appropriate in the context of an evolving media landscape and recognising the importance of providing information to the media fraternity.

“Cabinet re-stated its commitment to providing timely information to the public through various media, including regular engagement with journalists. It was therefore confirmed that while adjustments to the approach are being fine-tuned, the minister responsible for information, Senator Ruel Reid, will resume briefings related to Cabinet matters as early as July 11,” the release stated. The PAJ still has reservations about whether this process will work the way it should.

Here in Georgetown, the problem is of a different order. President Granger does not hold press conferences. The two full ones he has held since taking office shouldn’t even count considering the myriad issues and crises that have arisen in the over three years since he was sworn in as President. It must be something of a shoo-in for the Guinness World Records that in a government where the President and Prime Minister have been journalists of long standing that only two press conferences have been held in over three years.

Why the Prime Minister himself has not held press conferences may be directly linked to the facts that he doesn’t have much of a portfolio and whereas as PM he should be the principal assistant to the President this honour has fallen upon the Minister of State, Mr Harmon who is the de facto Prime Minister. President Granger has no such excuse. He is not a ceremonial President. He is the Executive President of the country and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as accoutred by the Burnham constitution. He therefore has the responsibility and obligation to interface with the public. In all modern democracies the primary vehicle for this is the media in its multiplicity.

The basis of President Granger’s disinclination to meet with the press on a regular basis is unknown but reflects disregard for the essential role that the media have in holding him and his government accountable. Whatever the reason, the President has a duty to the public to present himself for regular questioning and to relay his thought process on the pivotal issues facing citizens and the country. 

After he entered office, President Granger was the guest on a semi-scripted, one-hour television show where he was questioned by two journalists – one from the private media and one from the state media on a variety of topics. This format was flawed but was better than nothing. That show has disappeared for some time now.

Journalists are now left to pose important questions to the President in brief interludes on the sidelines of events such as the acceptance of letters of credence for new envoys or the swearing in of some commission member or the other. On other occasions, it isn’t possible for the journalists to get close enough to the President to get a question in. That is not good enough. The media corps must not be treated as if they are an irritant to the Presidency and be made to make do with a hurried minute here and another on the way to the presidential vehicle. That is to denigrate the important role of journalists in framing questions, following up and taking all together the President’s responses on multifarious issues over a concentrated period.

It would not be impertinent to say that the President can make the time available for journalists. He is often in attendance at mostly ceremonial events which could hardly be described as requiring his presence.

It is true that the Minister of State and other ministers hold press conferences. These, however, are no substitute for the prime decision maker holding his own and it begs the question that if ministers are being accountable to the media what about the President.

There are many questions that the President should be answerable for in the full glare of the media: failure to institute constitutional reforms, breach of the promise for free collective bargaining, duplicity as it relates to the renegotiation of the Production Sharing Agreement with EEPGL, the promised multi-year wages package for teachers, the slumping economy, lack of job creation, crime, the substantive appointments of a Chancellor and Chief Justice and the list can go on and on.

President Granger must hold regular briefings for the media corps. These are long overdue.

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