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The unbiased media

EditorialThe unbiased media

Mon. Jan. 22, 2024

The commercial media arena in little Belize is relatively large, with newspapers, television stations, and recently a host of social news media, all competing for the attention of the public and the advertising dollar. Understandably, with our small population, the competition is fierce, especially since Covid-19 and the explosion of various social media news outlets which entered the commercial advertisement field, when businesses were struggling to survive and cutting costs in their advertisement budget. Time marches on, and the suggestion is that we all just have to move with the times: newspapers used to be the only means of quick mass communication, then radio, then television, and now “social media” of various sorts have been added to the mix.

In Belize, newspapers are operating with a much-reduced budget, at a time when the advertisement dollar is shrinking and hard copy readership has also been reduced, as more and more people are satisfied with getting their news from the major television and radio stations or the many “instant” news outlets on social media. Fair enough, but in this world of competition, situations arise that point to the possibility of the playing field being not quite level, and to the detriment of the listening and viewing public. The recent 7News revelations associating the ownership/influence of a particular social media news outlet with a prominent person who has been questioned by police in regard to a matter whose principals were blatantly exposed on that said social media outlet, comes to mind. Was the particular news media in this case being used for a personal vendetta?

The idea of an unbiased media is one which is very debatable in Belize; in fact, certain newspapers are publicly acknowledged to be the mouthpieces of particular political parties – the party organ, they are called. And that is accepted as no big thing. Everyone knows that The Belize Times is the newspaper of the PUP; and The Guardian is for the UDP. The Reporter is generally considered independent, but with a known bias, from its founding, towards the business class.

And the Amandala, an independent voice, has from time to time thrown its support behind one or the other party, or even a single political candidate at times; but no political party or group can claim that they “own” Amandala, which means “Power to the People”. The newspapers have their owners, and so do the radio and television stations, which have to gain a license to operate from the Broadcasting Authority of Belize.

We know for a fact, from our experience here at Amandala, that by law a copy of the newspaper, signed by the publisher, must be submitted to the authorities every week. The owners/publishers of the newspapers, radio and television stations are liable, under the libel laws of Belize, for any matter released to the public that violates those laws. This newspaper, and others also in Belize, has been sued many thousands of dollars under these laws that are very restrictive on the media in regard to what is considered defamatory to any individual. In competition for the advertisement dollar, the commercial news media – newspapers, radio and television – thus have to walk a thin line. The public often laments the scarcity of good investigative reporting in Belizean news media, but everything comes at a cost, and as we repeat, the advertisement dollar, upon which these media depend to pay operating costs, including employees, is limited and shrinking.

What 7News owner Jules Vasquez revealed in an editorial comment on his television station last Friday, is something that should be of concern to all Belizeans, and particularly, the Broadcasting Authority of Belize, whose oversight authority may not be as robust as it could be over this relatively new phenomenon called “social media”. When we talk about the instant social media news outlets, that anyone can access by cell phone, the major ones that come to mind are “Breaking Belize News”, “Hot Off The Press”, “Belize News Network” and “Belize Live News”. There may be others. In every issue of every newspaper published in Belize, the reader can find in a prominent place the names of the publisher, editor, etc. as well as the names of reporters who write articles in the paper. Because of the problem of anonymity of callers to the radio/television talk shows, who might put the station at risk by defamatory statements, program hosts are quick to advise callers not to call the names of individuals about whom they may be making controversial statements. But, who knows the names of the owners/editors of these various social media news outlets? Jules has his sources, and he stated categorically on Friday that a prominent attorney, whose name has been associated with a rape allegation by two women, is a prominent person in the Hot Off The Press news outlet, which released some very derogatory material about the said two women.

Aside from whatever self-serving motive was behind the Hot Off The Press release concerning the two women, another concern for us in the news business is that the public has a right to know who are the owners of every news media outlet that accepts advertisement dollars from the business community, who are liable to pay taxes to the national treasury. Who owns “Hot Off The Press”, “Belize Live News”, “Breaking Belize News” and “Belize News Network”? In this small country, where sometimes it seems like everything is politics, the public has a right to know who is giving them the news, so that people can have an opportunity to consider the possibility of any bias that may be involved. Moreover, if some news media are paying taxes and others are not, then we are not all competing on a level playing field.

Everybody seems to be jumping onto social media; and that is fine. To each his own. Even the Ministry of Sports is pursuing cost savings by designing a special app to share all their sporting competition news with the public on social media. Newspaper space costs money — for paper, ink, film, media workers, etc., so space is limited for what we can cover in our sports section. Even the multi-million-dollar FFB has chosen Facebook, rather than invest a penny for advertisement in the newspaper sports pages. And that is fine too. With Jah’s blessing, we will survive. You know where we stand, and where we have always stood, since 1969. Amandala means, Power to the People!

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