On February 19, 2014, something extraordinary happened on the island of Bermuda.
Here’s the short version.
The personal staff of the Premier of Bermuda made great efforts to prevent me from entering a press conference lead by the Premier at Cabinet Office on the grounds that I was not “approved” media.
The Acting Director of the Department of Communication and Information explained that she had not completed her due diligence on my organization Think Media and wanted reassurance that I would “join” the Media Council of Bermuda as a condition for participation in the press conference.
I agreed to this “condition”, and was allowed to enter the conference. At the conference, the Premier announced that he would be pursuing legal action against two Opposition figures for defamation. He, and the Ministers in attendance, refused to take any questions.
As I had reason to suspect some form of interference, I took the precaution of asking Bermuda Broadcasting Company to videotape my entrance to the building and subsequent events.
I am grateful to Bermuda Broadcasting Company – in particular, news director Gary Moreno and cameraman Trevor Lindsay, for their assistance in this regard.
The next day after further correspondence – and before I was made a member of the Media Council – I was informed by the DCI Director that I would with immediate effect, receive all media privileges and courtesies.
Many members of the public viewed this incident as an attempt to muzzle the press.
I decided not to draw any firm conclusions before giving the Government ample opportunity to fully explain its actions. No such explanation has been forthcoming.
Here’s the long version of what now appears to be capricious and arbitrary rule making in an attempt to hinder this journalist’s legitimate pursuit of one of the most important political stories of the last 20 years.
I have provided a detailed account of the facts surrounding this incident, including correspondences with the government and other relevant details so that those interested can draw their own conclusions.
All relevant documents can be found in the Documents tab of this site.
The February 19 saga started with the Premier’s secretary Judy Benevides who, stationed at the entrance to Cabinet Office, told me to “step to the side” while other media were allowed to proceed unhindered.
She was unable to explain the unprecedented protocol being pursued so I continued on my way upstairs to the Cabinet room where the press conference was scheduled to be held within ten minutes.
Benevides then rushed to alert the Premier’s Chief of Staff, Dale Jackson.
Halfway up the stairs my path was blocked by regiment soldier Kenton Trott – on chauffeur duty for the Premier – who said I was not to come upstairs until escorted.
Jackson then came up the stairs and told Trott: “he can’t go”.
Trott responds: “I know, but he’s still walking.” He then told me he had been asked to escort me out by his “superior” (Jackson).
I refused to leave and insisted that I get a full explanation of why my participation was being denied.
The standoff continued as the room filled with Government Ministers, a One Bermuda Alliance party executive and members of the media.
Meanwhile, three out of five media organisations already in the room announced that they would not participate in the conference unless I was allowed in.
Eventually, the Acting Director of Communication and Information came to me and said she needed to know if I was a member of the Media Council of Bermuda.
This was an odd question, given that no such criteria had been imposed or suggested since I formally informed her of my role as a self-employed journalist on February 10. But the Acting Director of DCI had written an email about 20 minutes before the conference was due to start seeking to know whether I was a member of the Media Council and which media outlets I had submitted articles to.
I told her I had no problem adhering to the code of practice of the Media Council, Bermuda’s voluntary media complaints body. I also protested that I should have been informed of the “rules” before.
The Acting Director then went downstairs and could be seen having a lengthy conversation with the Cabinet Secretary.
The pair then came back to discuss further with me. Asked why the Premier’s staff had been so intent on preventing my participation in the press conference, Cabinet Secretary Derrick Binns said he had instituted a new protocol since his appointment on December 2.
Its not unprecedented. Absolutely not. It was my instruction that no one is to move from the lobby unless they are escorted. We have had some security issues and its my responsibility for the security and safety of all persons who work in this building. It was therefore my decision that anyone who enters Cabinet Office must be escorted from the lobby to any place – including media. That’s been in place since December 2, my first day of appointment.”
The two insisted that I agree to “join” the Media Council of Bermuda immediately after the press conference.
I was then allowed to enter.
Here’s a timeline of our correspondence:
Email to DCI Acting Director formally informing her that I was practicing as a self-employed, independent journalist and requesting that her department accord me the same courtesies and privileges of other members of the media.
As no response was received to the February 10 email, I send the following email to the Cabinet Secretary
I write to inform you that I am now working as a self employed, independent journalist and building an alternative media organisation.
My initial focus will be politics, governance, human rights and the economy/business.
I would be most grateful if you would ensure that the government of Bermuda extends the same courtesies, rights and privileges to myself (and other representatives of ThinkMedia that I may appoint from time to time) that are extended to other members of the media.
Acting DCI Director responds with a request that I call her to discuss my February 12 email which had been forwarded to her by the Cabinet Secretary.
Acting DCI Director calls asking “where can I find Think Media”. Unable to talk, I tell her there is no online presence as yet and I’ll get in touch. She follows up with an email asking again that I call to discuss. I respond with an email saying I needed to keep my phone lines open and would prefer any discussion to be done by email.
As you can imagine I am extremely busy with work as well as setting up my infrastructure. To answer your question “where can I find Think Media?” I’ll let you know as soon as my online presence is ready.
In the meantime, my role as an independent, self-employed journalist means I can publish with any outlet I have an agreement with. I have contacts with The Guardian in the UK, and of course all the local Bermudian media organizations. So spending time and energy with an online presence at the moment is not that important, especially given the rapidly developing story right now.
This is an important time in the political history of this country, as serious questions are being asked about the behaviour of people at the highest echelons of the elected Government.
I am doing my part to establish the facts in service of the public interest.
I believe journalism is an act of citizenship and I am confident that the professionals in Government, such as yourself, will ensure that I am accorded the same courtesies and privileges as those provided to other members of the media.
So, I am not sure what needs to be discussed. In any case, as I need to keep my phone lines open, I prefer that we communicate by email.
February 19, 10:39 a.m.
Acting DCI Director responds with an email insisting we discuss the “matter” on the telephone.
Thank you for your email, however I’m sure you can appreciate that it is my responsibility to find out pertinent information about any organization that wants to be granted media privileges through the Department of Communication and Information.
I note your request that we continue this discussion by email, however I would prefer that, at the very least, we have a telephone meeting to further discuss this matter.
Please call at your earliest convenience.
February 19, 11:21 a.m.
I respond as follows:
Thank you for your email.
For clarity, my email to you was a courtesy informing you of my role as an independent, self employed journalist.
You did not reply so I sent another one to the Cabinet Secretary.
I am not seeking the Government’s permission to earn a living or practice my craft.
There is no organisation as such because, as I indicated to the Cabinet Secretary, it is in the process of being built. Think Media is Ayo Johnson. Attached is my resume for your perusal. I hope it satisfies your need for information.
As you are well aware, I am a professional journalist and have every right to practice my profession in this country – and about 50 others – without hindrance or obstructions.
Needless to say, I shall resist any attempt by the Government of Bermuda to hinder me in my legitimate pursuits.
The acting director’s response – in which she hints, for the first time, at criteria for being granted media privileges – did not arrive before I left my office for the Premier’s press conference.
February 19, 11:49a.m.
Let me be clear. This is not an attempt by the Government to hinder you in any way shape or form. As I indicated in my previous correspondence to you, I have a responsible to vet any organization that wants to be accorded media privileges and this is what I am doing.
In an effort to demonstrate that I am not in any way shape or form trying to ‘obstruct’ or “hinder’ you, I will forgo the need for a telephone meeting and ask that you provide answers to the following questions.
- Are you a member of the Bermuda Media Council?
- Can you list the names of the local media outlets for whom you provide freelance work?
Thanks in advance for your cooperation.
[Note: the press conference was to take place at noon]
My response was sent after the press conference when I had a chance to read the Acting Director’s email.
February 19, 2:16 p.m.
I agreed to your condition that I “join” the Bermuda Media Council this afternoon in order to gain entry to today’s press conference and exercise my rights.
However, I must now inform you that the condition is impossible to fulfill. The Media Council of Bermuda is not a membership organisation for freelance, independent journalists. Media outlets sign up to its Code of Practice – voluntarily, I might add.
To answer your second question, you already know the names of all the media outlets in Bermuda. As a freelance, self employed, independent journalist, I offer my work to those I think will handle it with the respect it deserves and with which I can successfully conclude negotiations.
As you know, most, if not all, of the local media outlets have signed up to the Bermuda Media Council Code of Practice. As such, any work submitted to these outlets by myself – or any other freelancer for that matter – and published – by these outlets would have to be compliant with the Code of Practice (SEE BELOW).
I find it interesting that “membership” of the Bermuda Media Council – an effectively defunct, dysfunctional institution that has not been able to pay its own executive officer for some time – is now considered the gold standard for media accreditation by the Bermuda Government.
I also find it curious that your very simple (yet misinformed) questions could not be posed in an email.
And I now must ask that you publish the list of “approved” journalists in this country, the criteria by which they were approved, and explain to the country when these criteria were developed, who drew them up, and which media outlets were made aware of them.
Perhaps the Cabinet Secretary can explain whether, given his concerns about security, he, the Premier – or the Cabinet Office personnel – consider me a security risk.
I sincerely hope that this afternoon’s fiasco is not repeated.
I have to wonder whether someone has decided that I, Ayo Johnson, will not be practising journalism in Bermuda. You, and the Cabinet Secretary, need no reminding that as taxpayer funded officials, you have a duty to resist such agendas.
So let me repeat: I shall resist any and all attempts by the Government of Bermuda or any of its elected or appointed officials, to hinder me in my legitimate pursuits.
My online domain will be www.think.bm. I’ll let you know when it is live.
In the meantime, I look forward to working with you productively and positively.
207 North Shore Road
(441) 703 2965
07831 928 374
9 • Are ‘citizen journalists’ covered by the terms of the Code?
Yes, if they submit material to media outlets that subscribe to the Code. Editors/news directors/website managers (who take the ultimate responsibility under the self-regulatory system) are required to take care to ensure that the Code is observed not only by staff, but also by external contributors, including non-journalists. So, for example, this would cover freelancers, specialist contributors, photographers, readers’ letters, as well as citizen journalists. An editor/news director/website manager intending to publish material from such sources would need to make whatever checks necessary to ensure it complied with the Code.
To date I have not received a response from the Acting Director of the Department of Communication to the above email.
February 20, 12:45 p.m.
I send the following email to Tony McWilliam, chair of the Media Council of Bermuda, copied to Meredith Ebbin, the Cabinet Secretary and the Acting Director of DCI.
As you know, I am a self-employed, independent journalist trying to build a new media organisation.
You should be aware of yesterday’s confrontation with the Government ahead of the Premier’s press conference. I was allowed in on condition that I become a member of the Media Council as a matter of urgency.
I contacted the Council by telephoning its executive officer Meredith Ebbin shortly after the incident and she said she would get in touch with you, as Chairman of the Council to see how you want to handle this.
As I intend to continue my work as an independent, self employed, freelance journalist and Budget Day is tomorrow, would you please advise as a matter of urgency how you wish to proceed?
It would also help if you can assist us with how freelance journalists fit in to the framework of the Media Council of Bermuda and its Code of Practice, especially given that I am looking to engage in agreements with outlets such as the Bermuda Sun.
As I fully intend to attend tomorrow’s Budget Day press conference and a repeat of yesterday’s turn of events is in no one’s interests, I would be most grateful if you would address this matter today.
For clarity, my organisation is not yet built. When it is, I intend for it to be a member of the Media Council in its own right. For now, Think Media is, for all intents and purposes, Ayo Johnson.
Mr. McWilliam’s reaction was to canvas the Media Council for any objections to my membership. He did not address the question posed about freelance journalists or, to my knowledge, engage with the government officials copied in on the email.
But within minutes of sending the above email, I receive the following from the Acting Director of DCI:
February 20, 1:04 p.m.
Please be advised that you have been added to DCI’s media distribution list with immediate effect.
You will receive notifications of press conferences and press statements/releases and will be allowed to attend/cover government press conferences and events
This article belongs to Politica ! The original article can be found here: “Approved” media only: intimidation or bureaucracy gone wild?
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