Blocking move fails to deter Bermuda's independent press

More trouble in paradise for the staff of Bermuda’s Royal Gazette and its sister newspaper, the Mid-Ocean News, after premier Ewart Brown bizarrely responded to their campaign for more government transparency and a freedom of information law — by trying to cut their access to government spokesmen.

Brown has ordered communications officers at the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Tourism and Transport to “reduce their contact” with the papers. Without apparent irony, Brown declared: “This step has been taken in order to prevent a total breakdown of communication between the Premier’s office and these publications.”

Ludicrous as the strategy reads, it’s seen as further evidence of Brown’s frustration at the failure of his bid to silence the papers’ criticism by stopping their state advertising and subscription deals in March 2008.

This kind of ‘soft censorship’ is common across the Americas and the Caribbean, and roundly condemned by press freedom activists and by constitutional lawyers.

“Government discrimination in the placement of advertising is an act of indirect coercion that is contrary to freedom of speech,” ruled Argentina’s Supreme Court when seeing off a similar bid by a provincial government to block a critical paper. Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s team was marked down last year for using the same tactics on the political magazines Processo and La Tijerata, among others.

It’s a slow-burning strategy that doesn’t always work, even if the courts don’t stand up for free expression rights. On the other side of the Caribbean, the Guyanese government banned state advertising in the leading private daily Stabroek News for 17 months before giving up the boycott under domestic and international pressure.

And with the Bermuda Royal Gazette citing an independent 2008 survey that found their print and online versions reached almost 90 percent of the island’s adult population, the government may be censoring its own messages to the public.

Editor Tim Hodgson of the Mid-Ocean News commented in an editorial that Brown’s decision to cut his already limited contacts with the paper “is entirely of a piece with his decision to introduce personal loyalty oaths for Cabinet Ministers — yet another aggressive demand for uncritical acceptance and unquestioning obedience.”

One answer may lie in the model adopted in Cartagena, Colombia, reported Don Podesta of the Centre for International Media Assistance in Washington. There newly-elected mayor Judith Pinedo set up a committee to regulate government advertising and distribute it with greater transparency and fairness.

In the meantime, premier Brown’s mean-minded strategy will not cow Royal Gazette editor Bill Zuill. “We will continue to submit questions to Government on matters of public importance,” he wrote last week. “When they are not answered, we will publish the questions so that the public will know we are simply trying to find out the truth on their behalf.”

Bermuda’s PM cuts off news to papers

Bermuda’s prime minister Ewart Brown has ordered his cabinet office officials to restrict the flow of government information to the island’s main daily paper, The Royal Gazette, and its sister weekly, the Mid-Ocean News. Read more here