BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar.15, 2021– Last year, the Government of Belize invoked section 3(1) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offenses) Act as a tool to limit the spread of inaccurate news, including false information that could cause panic among members of the public. The “fake news” regulation has since landed a couple of Belizeans in the courts to face charges, and now a media house, Tropical Vision Limited’s 7News Belize, is also under police investigation for allegedly posting reports on its Facebook page about a narco plane landing, although police never confirmed that such a landing actually took place.
According to statements made by Jules Vasquez, Managing Director of Channel 7, and Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, it appears that reports of an alleged plane landing in the northern part of the country had made their way to the Police Department and the Channel 7 newsroom almost simultaneously.
The police launched a search of the area and had detained three persons based on the intelligence they had received. One of these persons was found to be a tour guide and another was a Columbian consultant, according to Commissioner Williams. They were later released due to lack of information and the police’s failure to find an actual plane in the area where the alleged landing took place; however, a definitive report which stated that there was indeed a plane landing, was posted by 7News on its Facebook page.
During an interview, Channel 7’s News Director, Jules Vasquez, called out the Commissioner of Police for what he considered an attempt by the Police Department to censor the media.
“It should not be seen as censoring the media,” Williams said, in reference to Vasquez’s claims. “Censoring for me means that you are suppressing the media from reporting that which they should report. I don’t think any of you here could say that there have been any attempts on our part to dictate what to report or what not to report,” Commissioner Williams further said to members of the media during an interview.
Media houses, however, should be extra wary of publishing information that is not credible or has not been verified.
In fact, in response to the circulation of inaccurate reports concerning COVID-19, which often caused unrest in the general public back in March 2020, the Police Department began to bring charges against persons who were found to be spreading false information online. A number of persons were detained for failing to adhere to the strict new cyber protocols established by the Police Department.
Williams said that he believes media organizations are just as accountable for what they report as individuals who post false information online, and should face similar punitive measures for such an offense. “Let’s look at when private citizens do the same. They are dealt with in accordance with the law. What makes the media, who is trained to report accurately, who is trained to have media ethics, believe that they can get away with it? There is a thing called investigative journalism,” he said.
In reference to 7News’ unconfirmed claims that a narco plane had landed in northern Belize, Commissioner Williams says that the issue has been sent to investigators, and when the investigation is completed, they will determine what the next steps will be.
“Media houses have a responsibility. We just want to be sure that you do your job and that whatever you report is accurate. There is no attempt to censor the media. There is a right to freedom of expression, the freedom of press. And that right is not going to be fettered by us. But at the same time, the media cannot be seen to have that unfettered right to report what they want.” Commissioner Williams said.
The Police Department is still investigating the seemingly inaccurate post made by Channel 7 to determine if any charges will be levied.