Jamaica: Bloggers Discuss the Block on Pro-Tolerance PSA

Published: September 1, 2011

The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) recently produced a public service announcement aimed at encouraging Jamaicans to unconditionally accept members of their families who are homosexual. The organisation hoped to have had the spot broadcast on national television in August – but as a new month begins, the Jamaican media still appear to be firm in its stance that it will not air the advertisement, which features former Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe Christine Straw and her gay brother, Matthew, sharing their personal story. Public service announcements are typically aired free of cost in Jamaica, but in discussions, media heads have apparently said that even if it were a paid ad they still would not broadcast it because they reserve the right to decide on content.

The issue has sparked controversy in Jamaica, a country that is widely perceived as being homophobic, thanks in part to this and this. Much of the debate appears to be taking place through mainstream media – either via the comments section of online newspapers, letters to the editor and talk shows. There has been some discussion on Twitter, and a few bloggers have commented on the issue, making sure to upload the video of the PSA to their blogs.

To examine the controversy more closely, I asked Annie Paul, who lives in Jamaica, and two diaspora bloggers, Kathy Stanley (whose cousin, a prominent gay rights activist in Jamaica, was murdered in June 2004) and Kei Miller (who has written extensively on homophobia in Jamaica), to share their thoughts. Annie is the Publications Officer at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus and a founding editor of the journal Small Axe. Kei is an author and educator whose collection of short stories exploring the issue of Jamaican homophobia was shortlisted in 2007 for a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. He currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Kathy is a writer and poet who is also passionate about environmental preservation. She is about to begin her Master’s Degree.

Global Voices: To what extent has the media influenced public attitudes toward the PSA (although the spot is available for viewing online) by characterising it as “pro-gay” rather than “pro-tolerance”?

Annie Paul: It’s been on YouTube so the digitally connected have seen it for the most part. There’s such an anti-gay sentiment generally that I don’t think the media would need to do much to further prejudice public opinion.

Kei Miller: I have to confess I can’t speak with any absolute conviction about what happened in Jamaica and how it happened since I’ve actually been in Scotland while this whole thing has been played out. Strangely enough, Scotland is where Matthew (who is at the centre of this controversial ad) lives, and I’ve invited him to dinner to hear his side, but we haven’t met yet. To speak quite frankly, the Observer recently hasn’t seemed to me to be most responsible paper and this kind of sloppy journalism that isn’t interested in nuance but in the most controversial headlines that might stir up trouble and attract a wider and more incensed readership is typical. But in all fairness, I also can’t imagine that subtlety would matter much in Jamaica – ‘pro-gay’ rather than ‘pro-tolerance’. You see, once it got out that there was an ad addressing the topic of homosexuality, and that the ad was not hitting out against it, it was going to be characterized as a pro-gay ad. That seems to me an inevitability.

GV: I understand that one of the dailies has published a pro-gay-rights editorial. Do you think that some segments of the Jamaican media are more progressive on this topic than others?

AP: Oh yes! It’s not a universal response by any means. Nationwide Radio stayed on the subject for two or three days playing the audio from the PSA and trying to find out what the objections were. Dionne Jackson-Miller who works for RJR also focused on it though her own station didn’t allow her to play any part of the PSA. On Double Standards, which is a Newstalk 93 radio programme hosted by Yvette Rowe and myself, we’ve recorded an edition which will air next month where we discussed reactions to the PSA with the executive director of JFLAG for an hour. Interestingly he told us that one of the two main TV stations, CVM, had told JFLAG that they wouldn’t be averse to playing it if TVJ agree to air it.

KM: Yes I do think so. The Gleaner at least seems to me to invite a more open discussion on the topic. Their editorials, their columnists and some of the letters to the editor that have been published have really dared to challenge Jamaica’s homophobia. Other newspapers (including the Gleaner’s own sister paper, The Star!) seem interested in titillation more than discussion. Sometimes this easy urge to stir up controversy and outrage and hatred seems irresponsible to me. The topic of gayness is always a sure fire way to get Jamaicans talking without listening, and incensed.

GV: What do you gather is the principal reason for the stations’ refusal to air the ad? Are broadcasters afraid of retaliation somehow, either unlawful (homophobes who may take extreme action) or “lawful” (the government or corporate Jamaica pulling advertising or viewers boycotting the station)?

AP: Kay Osborne, head of TVJ, indicated in a Sunday Observer article that the reason behind TVJ’s decision not to broadcast the PSA was that “the culture of “good, moral and ethical Jamaicans, does not support homosexuality at this time.” At the same time she called on Jamaicans to be more open to dialogue on such matters which seemed more than a little contradictory. But yes, it seems to be an irrational fear of advertising dollars being pulled and the generally risk-averse nature of the media here.

KM: Cowardice. Ms Osbourne’s comment seemed to me a strange attempt to have her cake and eat it – condemning the discrimination of the Jamaican public while affirming the station’s position to play into that discrimination.

GV: You see this stance by the Jamaican media as just another example of their spinelessness. Can you elaborate?

AP: Yes, I do find Jamaican media too willing to ‘plead the fifth’ (to use an Americanism) rather than expose the truth in too many instances. This is especially true when dealing with those who have wealth – and hence power – in this society. I’m dismayed at how quick Jamaican media are to use the admittedly Draconian libel laws here to gag themselves, in the same way that they were only too willing to use the excuse of the buggery laws to keep from airing what is clearly an unpopular message.

Look at how long the media refrained from naming the suspect in the X6 killing recently, on the grounds that the police hadn’t released his name! In the UK the police didn’t release News of the World Editor Rebekah Brooks’s name when they arrested her, referring to her instead as a ‘44-year old female’. Did this prevent the media there from splashing her name all over their front pages? No! Because any media house worth its salt has the investigative capacity to uncover the truth and publish it without benefit of a PR announcement from the police.

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