On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Plus tv featured an interesting
exposé about the citrus industry of Belize. Citrus is one of Belize’s
major money earners, right up there with sugar, fisheries and tourism.
The problem is that as is the case with tourism and sugar, the citrus
company is in danger of falling under foreign ownership and control.
Louis Wade and Patrick Andrews, the two journalists who host the show,
gave some revealing statistics and damning evidence of certain
questionable goings-on within the citrus industry.
During the Monday broadcast, Mr. Wade read a text whereas someone
informed him that a window in his car had been smashed. Of course,
there are several scenarios that could explain what happened. A
mischievous child might have thrown a rock, someone wanted to
burglarize the car or there was someone upset with the family about a
totally unrelated matter. There is however, the distinct possibility
that this was an attempt to send a message to Mr. Wade. “Back off or
face the consequences.” In a television interview later that evening,
Wade’s wife informed that she did not plan to even file a police
report and was not paying the incident much mind. Not a wise
Interestingly enough, on that very day another journalist came close
to being involved in an intentional accident that could have caused
him serious injury. Vaughan Gill is a no-holds barred type reporter
whose constant prying and digging has exposed some very questionable
transactions on the part of the current government. Gill is also
co-host of another popular call-in show, this one run by the
opposition People’s United Party. Gill’s latest exposition was the
uncovering of a secret investment of Social Security’s money into BEL.
The government was forced to go public with the so-called investment
but as usual, pulled out a couple of pseudo experts and pushed through
the deal anyway.
Gill, who commutes daily to Belize City from Belmopan, was at about
the halfway point on his drive when he began hearing some mysterious
noises on his car. Upon examining the vehicle, it became obvious that
someone had tampered with one of the wheels and had loosened all the
nuts that held the wheel secure. Had that wheel run off with Gill
going even at a moderate speed, one can only imagine what could have
Journalists in Belize have to this point been relatively safe in
covering stories and expressing their opinions. It might also be
because very few journalists ever do thorough and in-depth
investigative reporting and refuse to touch certain topics. You might
say that journalists like Vaughan Gill and Louis Wade have been
pushing the envelope a bit. A few years ago, there was a guy around
Belize by the name of Melvin Flores. Flores did a few interesting
stories but then one day, he just disappeared. He eventually wrote
back to say that he had been threatened and therefore had to flee the
country. No one can say for sure whether
Melvin Flores was just paranoid or if indeed his life had been threatened.
We in Belize can only hope that we will never get to the point where
a few of our neighbors are. Journalist in Honduras, Salvador,
Guatemala and especially Mexico, operate in a climate of fear and have
a much different story to tell. Mexico is regarded as the most
dangerous place to be a journalist and recently, a New York based
organization called Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), revealed
that at least 37 media workers have been killed or gone missing since
2006. Things are so bad in Mexico that after one of its photographers
got killed recently, a Juarez newspaper ran a front page editorial
asking criminals and drug gangs for guidelines as to what to publish.
The editorial read, “Gentlemen…please explain to us…what you would
like us to publish or stop publishing…because the last thing we want
is for another one of our colleagues to fall victim to your gunshots.”
Freelance journalist Anna-Claire Bevan described journalism in
Guatemala as “a game of self-censorship: You say as much as you can
about what is happening, and as little as you can about who is doing
it.” If we are not careful, this is where we will end up in Belize.
In El Salvador, an on-line publication is currently facing threats
because of stories about alleged negotiations between the government
and criminal gangs. Now doesn’t that one ring a bell! I said earlier
that to this point, journalists have operated in relative safety. Of
course, to this point, we have never had the type of tyrannical and
despotic leadership which we now have. People who love power will
take desperate measures when they feel that power slipping from their
fingers. In December of 2010, Belize got a taste of what was in store
when for the first time ever in Belize, a government “suspended normal
relations” with a major media house. Public Officers and Ministers
were forbidden from giving interviews and information to Channel Five.
Channel Five is Belize’s biggest media house and services a large
share of Belize’s television audience. The CPJ and several other
respected international organizations had to get involved and voice
concerns in order for Barrow and team to back down and desist from its
strong-arm handling of the media.
This is the type of government that we are living under. In March of
1995, in their second term in office, two sitting UDP ministers were
arrested for storming into a Voice of the West radio station in Cayo
and destroying equipment and beating up the staff. The case never
made it to court leading many to believe that the action was
sanctioned by the government.
This administration has also shown a tendency to run loose and fancy
free with taxpayers money. Our only hope is to have in place a
vibrant and free media to keep them in check. We cannot allow our
journalists to be intimidated and assaulted. If we are to depend on
them to keep us informed and keep the government in check, then they
must also be able to rely upon us to keep them safe and free to work
and gather information. The Belize Constitution assures the freedom
of speech and press but citizens must be vigilant in ensuring that
such freedom is preserved. Leave our journalists alone!
G. Michael Reid
Citizen of the world