Building a Knowledge-Based Caribbean Society

Please forgive us. We English-speakers, when we speak of the Caribbean, often forget that English is actually the third language of the region. The Spanish-speaking populations of Cuba and the Dominican Republic Anglophones vastly outnumber the region’s Anglophones, while Haiti, with French as an official language, accounts for most speakers of the Caribbean’s second language.

Ethnolinguistics accounts for one set of the region’s inherent complexities; the region’s Geopolitical History is a study in itself. The anglophone Caribbean island-states of Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Christopher (St Kitts) & Nevis, St Lucia, and St Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago have a history of competition and collaboration. Each is a member of the Commonwealth, and they all form a regional political body known as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which is in turn working towards establishing and expanding the common economic zone known as the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME).

The primary tertiary education provider of the English-speaking Caribbean is The University of the West Indies (UWI), a sixty-year old monolith with physical campuses in three islands and a recently launched Open Campus, which a single virtual university space with over 50 physical sites across the English-speaking Caribbean. The University public relations machinery boasts that it is an international university with faculty and students from over 40 countries and collaborative links with over 60 universities around the world.

However, one of the criticisms leveled against the University is that its focus has for too long been on teaching (preparing students to pass exams) and not on applied research (preparing leaders to build society). Commentators have observed, for example, that in spite of an impressive throughput of undergraduate and postgraduate students, the University has failed to demonstrate the capacity to sustain thought-leadership at the top levels of the region’s business sector, civil society or government. Whether you agree with that view or not, you can hardly credit the University for producing the current generation of regional leaders, without also apportioning to the University at least part of the blame for those leaders’ shortcomings.

And at least one of the places that these shortcomings are evident is in the state of the English-speaking Caribbean media. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the press enjoys a high degree of press freedom, and Freedom of the Press is a constitutionally enshrined right of the citizens. Therefore, journalists are quite right to say—as they so often do—that it is their right to exercise that freedom, and it is their duty to defend it. However, Press Freedom alone does not guarantee the fulfillment of the social contract between the citizenry and the media. Therefore, just as the success of the regional University must not be measured merely in terms of how many thousands of graduates are being processed annually by its Faculties, so too must the Trinidad and Tobago media go beyond the discussion of Press Freedom and begin to re-examine its role in advancing the development of this small, complex and culturally rich society.

No meaningful discussion of this nature can overlook the role of technology development in reframing the potential for national and regional development in a globalised world. The game-changing power of telecommunications technology in particular is now being recognized by regional heads of state, captains of industry and leaders of civil society. The potential for e-governance is being exploited by iGovtt, the national information and communications technology (ICT) company, which is now partnering with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union to bring the Caribbean ICT Roadshow to several rural communities throughout Trinidad and Tobago in January and February 2011. The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce, through its multi-sectoral e-Business roundtable, is developing and exporting models for the innovative use of technology for business development. And civil society leaders demonstrated the devastating power of the social media in the last national elections, in which the opposition People’s Partnership coalition party, through a well-financed social advertising campaign, overtook the ruling party in the public opinion polls and ultimately in the Parliament.

Yet, where is the local media in all of this? How have media companies and individual journalists responded to these changes in our environment? On one level, many print, radio and television companies, seeking to establish a presence in the worldwide web, have launched Internet versions of their products and mobile delivery options for their services. But surely this approach lacks innovation, as it basically amounts to an increase in the number of channels for the same media product, as opposed to an increase in the number of media products.

While some media owners and executives may be satisfied with such a minimal investment of creative energy, we the journalists cannot be. The challenge for Trinidad and Tobago journalists is to discover how these new technologies can help us to further the cause of defending the public interest and promoting our cultural identity. As the leading tertiary education provider for the region, The UWI is well positioned to take up a leading role in formulating customized programmes that can help journalists to harness the potential of the emerging telecommunications technologies.

One positive sign is the University’s recent partnership with the private sector to produce the one-year Certificate in Journalism, launched in November 2010. Another encouraging sign is the recent announcement by the incumbent Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) executive leadership of its intention to reword the membership clause of its constitution to officially open its doors to independent journalists, bloggers and other non-aligned media practitioners.

These developments are encouraging, but can only be taken as the lead-up to a coordinated, consensually developed, nationwide discussion on the role of the media in the establishment of a twenty-first century knowledge-based society, not just in Trinidad and Tobago but also in the wider Caribbean and Latin American region. And we the journalists must take the lead in advancing this discussion.

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