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Telecommunications and Information Technology:
Building a Competitive Caribbean

 Panel III- The Telecommunications Revolution and Press Coverage of the Caribbean

By John Collins (1)

Remarks by John Collins
Global Policy Briefing U.S.-Caribbean Executives Club Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)
Washington, D.C. October 1-2, 2002

I wish to thank CSIS, the U.S.-Caribbean Executives Club and co-chairmen President Leonel Fernandez and Amb. Charles Manatt for scheduling this important panel on press coverage of the Caribbean in the context of the telecommunications revolution.

I welcome the opportunity to participate since I have lived in the Caribbean for more than three decades and am acquainted with most of the states in the region. Like others, including two distinguished examples here – President Fernandez and the Honorable Ken Gordon from Trinidad & Tobago, I too have also alternated between government and the media.

Our subject is of particular interest to me as an American living in the Caribbean and especially at this time when Washington is being visited by the incumbent president of the Dominican Republic and his predecessor, President Fernandez, as well.

First I think it is important to look at Caribbean media in general and in terms of the print media in particular. Because of time constraints, I’ll refer to the D.R. and Puerto Rico, on the one hand, and the English-speaking Caribbean, on the other.

The D.R., with a population approaching nine million and well over a million abroad, has ten or more dailies – I’m sure there are those in the business there who would say there are too many – and Puerto Rico (population four million) has four dailies. I’ve been told the top circulation in the D.R. hovers at less than 100,000 and in Puerto Rico the largest circulation is more than two-and-a-half times that.

In comparison in the English-speaking Caribbean, which stretches from the Bahamas and Bermuda in the north and Belize in the west down to Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Suriname in the southeast, has a total population approaching 15 million (counting Haiti) in 15 territories constituting CARICOM. Only Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad have dailies. The remaining CARICOM states have only biweekly or weekly newspapers.

Radio and television are the principal source of information for citizenry who follow events in varying degrees of closeness and keep relatively well-informed given their limited sources.

CANA in financial difficulties

The principal source wire service is the Caribbean Area News Agency (CANA) but media houses also subscribe to the Associated Press followed by Reuters. Coverage of the English-speaking Caribbean has also increased in recent years with EFE, AFP and the DPA.

Every afternoon throughout CARICOM many citizens at all levels of society regularly listen to the BBC’s Caribbean service from London and CANA’s daily Caribbean Report from Barbados. The VOA also provides daily service but I have found that it is not as widely listened to as the BBC and CANA. The BBC service also has wider reach in North America, Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

CANA has had financial difficulties in recent years with not enough subscribers in the region and even fewer abroad. Earlier this year it was forced to cutback its services and radically reduce staff by 90% after funding ($5 million) it had received from the EU and Reuters was terminated and then Reuters became another competitor.

In spite of the relatively large numbers of Caribbean people living in the U.S. and Canada, CANA has never been able to sufficiently expand its roster of subscribers in North America to cover its costs. I’ve been told the present number of subscribers totals three dozen.

The advent of the Internet has had a profound impact on information flows in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, accompanied with the same debate as in other parts of the world. As demand increases, some media houses, faced with mounting costs are looking for ways to make web sites pay their way including advertising and subscriptions.

There is no question that the Internet is performing invaluable service to Caribbean peoples in the diaspora by providing them with instantaneous news from home and in most cases free of charge. In the D.R. Impressive are DR1, RevistaInterForum and Pymesdominicanas in the D.R., PuertoRicoWOW and CANA’s CaribbeanNewspapers which provides links to more than three dozen newspapers in the region including Hoy and Listin. El Caribe also has an excellent web site.

How does America in general get its news about the Caribbean? Naturally, to many Americans it is a region of the three S’s (sun, sand and sea) because of the reputation it has earned as a vacation destination and the millions of dollars spent promoting travel there by its governments and private sectors.

Unfortunately, the amount of money spent by the countries of the region on investment promotion and serious, in depth information, pales in comparison. In that regard the countries of the Caribbean are competing with the other 190 nations in the world, all of which maintain embassies in Washington and many of which have public relations firms promoting them with varying levels of effectiveness and results.

How can the Caribbean get attention?

This was brought home to me graphically last week during President Mejia’s visit to Washington in the context of the Dominican Week in the U.S. The day after the president spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce readers of the three leading dailies in the D.R. read the details of the visit on their front pages accompanied by wire photos.

In contrast his visit went unreported and ignored by the Washington press corps except for the trade press which is following the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) process and the Mejia administration’s push for a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S.

Of course the Bush administration knew he was in town and Deputy Secretary Reich was present at the luncheon and he did meet with several members of Congress led by Representatives Charles Rangel and Ben Gilman, two longtime friends of the D.R.

But there wasn’t a word about his visit in the Washington dailies or even the Miami Herald which has covered the Caribbean more consistently than all other U.S. dailies combined.

As I looked around the U.S. Chamber dining room I noticed there were about 200 present and if 40 of them were Americans, the D.R. was lucky. The president’s speech was welcomed by many, including some of his critics, as one of his best ever. But the question to be asked is how many people outside the D.R. even knew about his visit, who he met with or what he did and what did he say? Of course the president’s web site posted periodic reports of the visit but we will have to wait and see if an English version of the speech ever appears.

Of course I was guarded in expressing my own observations so when I went to a meeting of the Group of Dominican Professionals in Washington two days later I was impressed when several Dominicans resident in Washington articulated some of my own concerns as well but in much blunter terms. Several speakers criticized both the D.R. government and private sector for not institutionalizing the country’s presence in Washington and its image projection in the U.S. Tough questions were asked about why more adequate financial and professional resources are not being provided to the embassy and the consulates. I thought to myself that it was unfortunate that more of the converted at the luncheon were not present for the postmortem at Georgetown.

Also visiting Washington last week was the new president of Colombia and articles about him with photos appeared in the Washington dailies and elsewhere and he was interviewed on several television programs.

An old Dominican friend of mine recalled that Trujillo knew how to manipulate the U.S. media and even had a high paid publicist promoting the D.R. as well as himself of course. “You get what you pay for – that was true in the Era of Trujillo and its more true today because the D.R. is competing with a lot more countries in the world now,” he said.

Frustration over lack of awareness

While I’m speaking mostly about the D.R. today, I can assure you the same high level of frustration over the lack of awareness in the U.S. exists in all of the other countries in the Caribbean as well.

I write for more than a dozen newspapers in the region and in the U.S… and I assure you that the most difficult task for me is to get articles about the Caribbean into a U.S. daily, unless its negative or about a crisis.

I was surprised but not disappointed last year to hear a Washington editor, with broad foreign experience who has used by articles tell me “for the American reader the Caribbean is a secondary theater – you have to convince me that it has relevance for them.” A few months later, when he was on vacation, his assistant editor went further and dismissed the Caribbean as “a tertiary theater.”

What was the article about? The growing relationship between leftist politicians in the eastern Caribbean and Libyan leader Qaddafi and growing concern about it by the U.S. Government. The articles appeared in seven countries in the Caribbean and was widely discussed. The week before last Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, testifying in the U.S. Senate spoke about an intelligence report “from a Caribbean government and the activities of a Muslim group in that country” but he declined to identify either. My article ten months earlier cited the report and named the group and the country.  The same group is now the center of a controversy in the forthcoming elections Oct. 7 in Trinidad & Tobago.

There are so many other aspects of this unbalanced Caribbean media picture but I would like to pause here because I’m very interested in hearing what others have to say about this situation and what can be done to improve it?

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1) Other articles by the well known Caribbean author John Collins can be read at:
www.pymesdominicanas.com

Revista INTER-FORUM is affiliated with (ICCAP)

Any reproduction in part or whole is strictly forbidden without the authors written authorization  

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October 07, 2002

 

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