The so-called “social media” mechanisms have become exciting and influential in Belize and in the diaspora over the last several years. One of the most dynamic aspects of the social media in Belize is speed of response. As soon as something of consequence occurs, a social media activist can post an opinion on his/her site, and that matter can go, as they say, viral. In other words, in a short while thousands and thousands of people can be involved in the discourse.
Relative to the electronic media in British Honduras, which consisted of a government monopoly radio station until after independence, newspapers were always so very slow. There was a stimulating period in Belize’s history when the leading newspaper, The Belize Billboard, was a daily publication, with a major issue published on Sundays. This would be between 1956 and 1968, say. The Belize Billboard was the newspaper voice of the People’s United Party (PUP) until late 1956. To the best of our knowledge, The Belize Billboard began publishing in the late 1940s, after the end of World War II in 1945.
When the Billboard began publication, a Daily Clarion was already in existence. The Clarion, however, was a “safe,” conservative newspaper. It may probably be described as a pro-British, and therefore pro-colonial, newspaper. The early PUP, on the other hand, was a militant, revolutionary, anti-colonial organization, and the Billboard reflected the party’s views. It was because of anti-colonial views they expressed in the Billboard that two of the PUP’s major leaders, Leigh Richardson and Philip Goldson, served nine months in Her Majesty’s Prison in 1951 after the British convicted them of sedition in the Supreme Court.
There was a serious power struggle in the PUP in late 1956, and as a result of that struggle, George Price replaced Leigh Richardson as PUP Leader. At that time, Philip Goldson also left the executive of the PUP, and he teamed up with Richardson to form the Honduras Independence Party (HIP) in 1957. Somehow, Mr. Goldson had come into possession of the Billboard, so that after the power struggle Mr. Price moved quickly to form his own PUP newspaper, The Belize Times, which also went daily.
In the first general election held in Belize under the Ministerial constitution, the PUP won a landslide victory, claiming all 18 seats. This was in March of 1961. The colonial days in Belize were coming to an end, and so it was perhaps karma that the Clarion soon folded. Hurricane Hattie in October of 1961 wrecked the printing equipment of the Clarion, and that equipment was never replaced.
The Chamber Reporter (now The Reporter) entered Belize’s newspaper scene, introducing modern offset printing, as a weekly in 1967, and was followed by the humble, mimeographed Amandala as a weekly in 1969. The Billboard survived a disastrous fire in August of 1969, using an insurance award to move into offshore printing and continue publication. The Billboard, however, would cease publication shortly after the Belize City Council election of December 1971.
The laws governing the publication of newspapers were very strict in colonial days, and they remain on the books in independent Belize. The publishers of newspapers are strictly accountable, and have to sign two copies of each publication for delivery to the office of the Attorney General. Signed copies of the newspapers are used as evidence when there is a sedition arrest, as there was in 1970 of Evan X Hyde and Ismail Omar Shabazz. Such signed copies are also used as evidence when plaintiffs sue newspapers for libel or when the Government of Belize pursues contempt of court charges against a newspaper publisher.
The third millennial media landscape here which is dominated, on the instantaneous basis, by the social media, is almost completely different from the pre-Internet days because the social media activists have almost no liability in the strictly legal sense. It’s like the Wild, Wild West out there in the social media, where the dissemination of news and opinion is concerned, and of late the situation has become more irresponsible with the spreading of pornographic material.
The reason the social media revolution has perhaps not been as catastrophic as it could have been, is because the electronic media in Belize, which had been monopolized by both colonial and post-colonial governments, began to be freed in 1989. What this means is that when the social media begin spreading inaccurate or irresponsible news, such news can quickly be addressed and corrected by the radio and television stations, which have the instant dissemination power which the newspapers lacked, and still do.
The social media genie is not one that can be locked back up inside a bottle. The younger generations have become especially excited. One problem, as we have already seen in the cases of the vile pornographic attacks on individuals, is that the perpetrators are not easily held accountable, if at all. We don’t know that much about the social media, we confess, so we have to depend on public discourse.
Another problem, we think, is this. There are some weighty issues in Belize which require in-depth study. Such issues include the International Court of Justice (ICJ), offshore oil drilling, gill nets, the Sarstoon River, gang violence, and so on. The intellectual scene in Belize has become trivialized by social media.
Intellectual life in Belize before independence in 1981 featured street corner discussions, public meetings, and formal panel discussions and presentations held in halls and auditoriums. The public meetings and panel discussions and presentations were mostly held in the cool of night, when adults who held daytime jobs were able to attend. Several things happened which damaged intellectual life in Belize. One was the coming of television in 1982. Another was the coming of the Internet and sophisticated telecommunications in the 1990s. Yet another, perhaps the most critical, was the destruction of night life in Belize with the rise of the gangs more than a quarter century ago.
In 2017 Belize, a lot of people have become self-appointed experts on a lot of topics, including some of the massive topics to which we referred in the paragraph before the last. The social media genie, we repeat, cannot be returned to a bottle. We think that the tertiary level academic institutions have to take the lead and organize serious discourses on serious topics. But there are other organizations which can do this, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Oceana, APAMO, the trade unions, and so on and so forth.
The most serious of all the issues in Belize today is the ICJ. Don’t let anyone fool you. The ICJ is an existential issue for us. It is a Shakespearean case of: to be or not to be.
Power to the people.