Tuesday, June 22 2010
At last Friday’s opening of Parliament, an extraordinarily worrying situation developed in the Red House Chamber: the media were virtually placed on lockdown at the end of the formal ceremonies.
When the President departed, some journalists collected their notebooks, equipment and headed to the press gallery stairs to exit the Chamber. At the top step, they encountered a policewoman barring their exit. She informed them that her instructions were that the media were not allowed to leave the press area after the President´s speech and until the Chamber was cleared of guests.
After this, she added, accompanied by the police, the press could go to the Rotunda (through a back door) or depart the Red House if they wished.
The media complained that confined as they were no press would be present to record the ordinary sitting of the Senate taking place in another part of the building. The nonchalant response from a parliament staffer: she would let them know what went on in the Senate. An absurdity. No responsible reporter wants to take the risk of writing about proceedings they have not witnessed at first hand.
Reporters told staffers and police they had deadlines to meet and they pointed out the House was still sitting and the Chamber would take ages to clear. They could be “hostages” there for quite a while. Their arguments fell on deaf ears.
One reporter began to suffer an anxiety attack from claustrophobia. Others complained at the restrictions. The policewoman on duty said she could do nothing: she was following instructions. No was allowed out.
Whoever could have conceived of such a dangerous, reckless plan? What if there had been a panic and a stampede? The press gallery stairs are steep. The resulting chaos could have ended in serious injury. What if the reporters had decided that they were not going to be kept in “jail”? Would they have been placed in handcuffs?
We comprehend that the staff of the House had 400 guests to manage but the media should not be made to pay the price. If the media were not welcome on the Chamber floor or to enter the Rotunda with the other guests after the sitting, they should have been informed of this prior to the sitting. Verbal and-or written instructions could have been given to reporters. Parliament could have communicated these rules to editors. But to place the media under lockdown was unnecessary, dictatorial, an infringement of basic human rights.
The press understands we are guests in the congress. But guests are to be well treated not subjected to the erratic whims of its hosts. And Parliament which is the people’s business must be covered by a free not fettered press.
Further, very few viewers have the time or the inclination to watch the parliamentary Channel, which is a public service but just that. It cannot replace real journalism. The nation’s citizens depend on reporters, not the Channel for parliamentary accounts.
We are surprised at the unprecedented events of Friday as we are certain that this Government would have wished to have the media present as it presents its legislative agenda and as it has also indicated its desire to be more press-friendly than the last. We appeal to new Speaker Wade Mark to foster more cordial relations between the Parliament and the way the media is treated.
We trust that Friday´s extraordinary lack of judgment by the parliamentary staff was due to the stress of having to cope with hundreds — stage fright if you will — and that there will be no repeat of such a violation of the media´s constitutional rights.
Placing us under house arrest is unacceptable and undemocratic.