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Sunday, May 21, 2006 

Caribbean media and integration
Claude Robinson

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The information and communication technologies (ICTs) that are changing our world hold even greater promise for transforming Caribbean economies and societies, but the extent and pace at which it happens will depend largely on what our political leaders and business people do in the next couple of years.

Claude Robinson

The extensive penetration of mobile phones in just five years is nothing less than spectacular as Phillip Paulwell, minister of industry, commerce, science and technology is so fond of pointing out.

From just 70,000 fixed and mobile lines in Jamaica in 2000, there are now more than two million mobile phones in use in Jamaica, giving the country a penetration rate of more than 82 per cent, "the highest in the hemisphere" he told a symposium last Wednesday in Kingston to mark World Telecommunications Day.

At issue though, is how soon Jamaica and the rest of the region will move to the next stage to really use the Internet-based technologies and the computer to advance education, deliver health care, push e-commerce and create jobs, especially the good paying jobs in the emerging knowledge economy.

Jamaica now has an Internet penetration of less than 10 per cent and Paulwell would like to see that figure rise to at least 40 per cent in short order. He wants the computer to become as commonplace as the cell phone.

A wide range of experts, government officials, academics and business people spent three days (May 17-19) in the symposium trying to figure out how best to get from where we are to where we want to go. It's not an easy road.

How realistic is it to talk about a high-technology 'knowledge' worker when a majority of our school leavers do not achieve the basic proficiency in English and Mathematics? How does a sugar industry worker connect to the knowledge economy when he is functioning in a work environment looking more like the 18th century than the 21st ?

LEE CHIN. now controls

TV in Jamaica and cable

in The Bahamas and


The symposium, hosted by the Caribbean Telecommunications Union in association with the Telecommunications Policy and Management Programme in the Mona School of Business, had as its theme, ICTs: Facilitating Caribbean Integration.

Within the broad context of the role of ICTs, a specific concern has to do with the role of media in regional integration.

Interestingly, the symposium was taking place at the same time that the 30th anniversary of the start of operations (January 7, 1976) of the Caribbean News Agency (Cana) was taking place in Barbados.The agency was established to facilitate Caribbean integration at the time when the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas was transforming Carifta into Caricom (with Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago as the first signatories).

Observing Cana at 30 years

In a well-researched and thoughtful lecture at the Cave Hill Campus of the UWI to mark the anniversary, Sir Ronald Sanders, Caribbean diplomat and a founding director of Cana, concluded that the agency has contributed well to the regional integration process.

"Apart from the importance of, at last, putting in place a "Caribbean" news agency designed to "increase regional information flow between the countries of the Caribbean" and to make available news written from a Caribbean perspective, Cana linked together all Caricom countries, providing Belize and the Bahamas with Caribbean news for the first time.

But the agency, which relied heavily on external funding, fell on hard times in the 1990s and its operations were merged with those of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union to create the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), a commercial company engaging in a wide range of news exchange and other media activities in the region.

Sanders believes that together, Cana and the CMC "have aided the process of Caribbean integration and they have contributed to the development of a common Caribbean consciousness".

Now, the region is embarking on a new round of integration with new institutions like the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). Studies indicate that the people of the region are woefully uninformed about these institutions and how they will help the ordinary Caribbean citizen.

One study on Jamaican Perceptions of Regional Integration (May-June 2003) by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, UWI, Mona, found that: "Knowledge and awareness of Caricom and the Caribbean Single Market and Economy by our respondents were alarmingly deficient. The CCJ was more well-known but the level of understanding was superficial".

There is no doubt that the technologies and media structures exist to have a better informed conversation among the peoples of the region. One of the missing ingredients is a viable business model to put it all together.

The point can be illustrated by examining efforts to televise international cricket.Cricket World Cup 2007, just a few months away, will provide a unique opportunity to showcase our distinctive Caribbean style to a worldwide television audience of more than one billion people - one out of every six persons on earth.

But the regional media industries will largely be marginalised from the lucrative aspects of the production and distribution of the images, sounds, the cultures and flavours of the Caribbean people.The project has been assigned to an international firm, Octagon CSI, which produced the last two world cups.

They are, of course, expected to hire some camera operators and some other low-level technical persons. And on-air personalities will be visible, considering the international fame and reputations earned by the likes of Tony Cozier, Michael Holding and Colin Croft because of their proven expertise.

But the real value added services - design, production, distribution and rights-related issues - will be outside the regional media purview. Why is the broadcasting sector not in a position to benefit fully from the World Cup?

Part of the answer is that the regional media lack the size and experience to compete for these major contracts or, more realistically, to partner effectively with an international broadcaster.Back in the early 1990s, an international sport production company, TWI, began producing West Indies cricket home series through an agreement with the West Indies Cricket Board.

From the beginning, TWI used regional camera operators and some technicians mainly from the major TV stations. The system - as I understand it - has continued largely unchanged despite efforts by the regional broadcast industry to get more involved in the higher levels of production and distribution where the real money is made.

At the lower level, the CMC in partnership with some of the national stations have been producing the semi-finals and finals of regional cricket competitions but, regrettably, the financial and other resources are not enough to deliver the quality that will be required at the international level.

The ability of the media to be more fully involved in the integration process is hampered by the fact that there is still no regional radio or television station that can cover the entire region.
After the CBU and Cana merged their operations in the 1990s, it was anticipated by some stakeholders that a commercial, profit-driven entity would have emerged. It would have majority private shareholding with the institutional partners as the minority shareholders.

It was expected that a profit-driven CMC would operate a region-wide radio and TV station and a regional newspaper that would be distributed as a weekly insert in the editions of participating national newspapers. Business and labour issues would be the main stories covered in the newspaper.

But the plans did not materialise and the CMC was established with more modest goals. Now CMC appears to be moving towards realising one of its aims with the launch recently of Carib Vision Channel, to reach audiences in the region as well as in the Caribbean Diaspora.

As the CMC seeks to find a place in the regional marketplace, a series of mergers and acquisitions with the potential to create entities large enough to function across the region have taken place recently.The first was the creation of One Caribbean Media last November with the merger of the Trinidad-based, Caribbean Communication Network (CCN) and the Barbados Nation Corporation.

CCN owns the Express newspapers and CCN TV-6 in Trinidad and the Grenada Broadcasting Network (GBN), while the Barbados Nation Corporation publishes the Nation newspapers and owns four radio stations under the Starcom Network.

Then in April 2006, Jamaican/Canadian billionaire Michael Lee Chin entered the picture with his control of a TV property in Jamaica, cable in The Bahamas and Trinidad (and Jamaica pending) and a fibre-optic ring around the Caribbean and Central America .

The moves put Lee Chin's Columbus Communications Group in a unique position in both transmission and content creation and the ability to produce and deliver content just about anywhere in the region.

The choices are clear: CMC can either overcome the disabilities of conflict of interest among its membership or one or more of the private organisations will establish a truly pan-Caribbean organisation that can really make a difference.

Given historic contradictions between regional and national priorities inherent in a CMC-type structure, my bet is that the initiative will come from one of the larger private sector players in the region. Of course, it could also come from outside the region.

Claude Robinson is senior research fellow in the Mona School of Business, UWI. kcr@cwjamaica.com

Copyright© 2000-2001 Jamaica Observer.

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