A Chilling Effect in the Tropics: The Belizean Government Leaves a Leading Media House in the Cold

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In June, I worked with a great group of Belizean journalists during Dateline: Belize, five days of workshops at University of the West Indies, Open Campus, Belize. One of my hopes as coordinator of the program was that Belizean journalists would be inspired to form a professional association. Such a group would allow them to speak as one voice when issues of concern to all might arise. Guess what? An issue has arisen. And, there is no professional journalism association in place to express why it’s bad news.

Here’s the story: There’s a face-off between the Government of Belize and Channel 5/Great Belize Productions. In early December, the GOB decided to remove News 5 from its media distribution lists and press conference notification roster; cease to use the channel for public announcements; and either refuse or ignore interview requests. Everyone from cabinet ministers to fire department and police personnel are giving News 5 the cold shoulder. (Full disclosure time: I was the first news director of News 5 when it debuted in 1991).

Here is the Amandala newspaper’s lead paragraph when the news broke earlier this month:

“In a first for the Belizean press, a news station has effectively been cut off from access to communication with the government of the day, after Government accused it of violating the terms and conditions of its license and otherwise seeking to undermine the national interest.”

The GOB released a statement on Dec. 7 that began as follows:

“The Belizean public is hereby informed that, effective immediately, the Government of Belize is suspending normal relations with Channel 5 and Great Belize Productions.”

The statement goes on to list four reasons for its move, which I am excerpting below:

  1. “(Channel 5/Great Belize Productions) has willfully and systematically violated the terms and conditions of its license under the Belize Broadcasting and Television Act which require that a station’s ‘news programs shall be broadcast in a professional, objective and impartial manner with a clear distinction between news reports on one hand and editorializing and commentaries on the other.'”
  2. “Channel 5 is the only local television station that has refused to air the government-produced video program, Belmopan Weekly.” Under Belizean law, “The licensee shall provide to the government one hour per week broadcasting time, free of cost, for broadcasting public service messages and programs produced by or channelled through the Ministry of Information. The allocation of such time shall be determined by the Ministry of Information.”
  3. “The station has over the past two and a half years proceeded down a deliberate path to systematically undermine, not just the government, but the interest of the entire nation and its people.”
  4. “…this government sees no value, purpose or justification in attempting to maintain with Channel 5 the kind of relationship it has sought to cultivate and nurture with all local media…”

The GOB statement concludes, in part: “no government representative of any ministry or department will give any official individual interview or make any individual appearance on Channel 5.” It further states that the government “stands ready to resume normal relations with Channel 5 and Great Belize Productions as soon as the station demonstrates a willingness to comply with the law and conform to the established standards and principles of fair and objective journalism and programming.”

While it is true that the Ashcroft Group of Companies owns Channel 5 and Great Belize Productions, and it is true that the woman at the helm, Amalia Mai, has long-standing ties to the opposition People’s United Party, what exactly is going on here?

Mai, a former Belize Times editor  and ambassador and CEO in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the PUP, spoke to Amandala about the GOB’s allegations and decision to sever relations with the broadcaster.

“Channel 5”, she said, is “an independent station. Our reporters will tell you that we have always sought a response from the other side for all our stories, and if that is not reflected in our stories, that is because either they did not want to be interviewed, or they were not available. In doing our work, it has never been about politics. I am satisfied that we have done our best to reflect the opinions of both sides.”

In her interview with Amandala, Mai added “the sole complaint from Government about the station’s alleged conduct came last week Wednesday by letter, concerning an episode of Belmopan Weekly that did not air in the slot requested by GOB on Sunday, November 21. She says she has been assured that the program was aired elsewhere on the schedule.” And furthermore, “She pointed out that GOB neglected to mention in its release that according to the revised schedule of terms and conditions for an on-air television license according to the Broadcasting and Television Regulations (and not the Act as the release claims), the allocation of broadcast time to GOB is ‘determined in consultation with the licensee,’ which she claims never happened with Channel 5.”

Even News 5’s chief rival, Channel 7 News, seemed alarmed at the precedent the GOB’s move is setting. Here is an exchange between News Director Jules Vasquez and the Hon. John Saldivar, Minister of Information.

Saldivar“At this present time they are an organ of the People’s United Party and again although Channel 5 does not openly admit this because of the nature of their ownership and the relationship between the owners and the current leader of the People’s United Party and their determination to undermine this government, we are of the opinion that Channel 5 has become an official organ of the People’s United Party.”

Vasquez: “This suspension on normal relations, how do you enforce that without throttling the free flow of information and the fact that public information needs to get out, needs to be ventilated?”

Saldivar: “I think if you go back to what I have said, the relationship will be no different from that which prevails with the Belize Times and the Vibes Radio so that it’s simply that Channel 5 is now being considered an organ of the People’s United Party. All the regular mundane correspondences, press releases that go out to continue to be issued to the public as per normal. We are simply saying that in terms of special courtesies with respect to personal interviews – exclusive interviews and reports that we will not treat with Channel 5 as we do the rest of the media and certainly we will treat with Channel 5 as we do the Belize Times and Vibes Radio.”

Jules, whom I consider a friend and admire as an aggressive and fair-minded newsman, presses Saldivar on how this embargo would work.

Vasquez: “I don’t understand your interpretation of ‘courtesies.’ I am not seeing an interview with the Met Department when a storm is approaching as a courtesy, I see it as a public information necessity.”

Saldivar: “And where it is categorized as a public relations necessity I am sure the appropriate action will be taken, I am simply saying to you that where it is considered a courtesy and not something of public importance in terms of a disaster, certainly we will use the regular chains of communications. If they can show that they are not totally biased and without any consideration for objectivity – an official organ of the People’s United Party – I am sure that the government will be prepared to look at it…”

Vasquez: “How would it work with the government press conferences or with the Prime Minister’s press conferences? Will this, media house be invited to the press conference? Will questions be taken from them?”

Saldivar: “I am sure you are aware that employees of Vibes Radio do attend Prime Minister’s press conferences and are allowed to ask questions, however stupid they may be.”

Vasquez: “Is it somewhat uncomfortable for the government to have to take a position like this?”

Saldivar: “We are not uncomfortable any at all about taking this position; we believe it has to be made clear in the minds of the Belizean people exactly the agenda that the Channel 5 people are pushing.”

While the GOB and the nation’s one true media powerhouse stew about their tiff, the Belizean people lose out:
  • News reports about government activities and important public announcements do not appear on News 5, either over the air or on its website
  • Local journalists may find themselves wary of saying anything that the government may find objectionable and avoid vigorously pursuing issues that are in the public interest
  • If the tit for tat nature of Belizean politics holds true, we might expect to see a future government decide other media outlets are organs of their opponents and sever “normal relations.”

On Dec. 17, News 5 did a bit of PR on its own behalf.  Reporter Jose Sanchez conducted an interview with Carlos Lauría, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Here’s part of their exchange:

Sanchez: “Mr. Lauría, would you say that freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of democracy?”

Lauría: “Definitely. Without a free press, society is not, cannot be informed about issues that affect the daily lives of citizens. Freedom of expression is enshrined in most of the political constitutions of the countries and it is the fundamental of human rights. All citizens have the right to be informed. I firmly believe it is vital for democracy. End this embargo against the channel and allow officials to talk openly with reporters because they need to do the work. There are going to be times that the official word is not going to be out there because the officials are taking this position which is not really a constructive and is really something that should be avoided.”

No doubt. And here’s a side bar: Today the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan, Belize, released a general statement about the importance of a free press in a democracy.

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