09 Oct Blog: The Privilege to Inform and Be Informed in Post-Irma St. Maarten
By Sanne Rotmeijer
In times of disaster, we are confronted with and shocked by the disrupting impact on our daily lives. Disasters, however, also reveal and enlarge structural inequalities, and power politics that already were there. And, more importantly, they open up spaces to alter them.
One of the structural dynamics that has been exposed in the wake of hurricane Irma that recently hit the Caribbean island of St. Maarten (along with many islands in the region) is the privilege to inform and be informed. And how this is related to language, migration, money and politics.
Just after Irma had struck St. Maarten there was an overall lack of updated news on the situation. Most media on site were not able to produce news due to the loss of electricity and Internet.
News had to come from foreign sources.
In the middle of the local news “vacuum”, St. Maarten-born, and Amsterdam-based, photographer Lisandro Suriel, shared an important Facebook post about the unequal access to these sources:
“Not everyone has family members living abroad who could have informed them of anything in real time. May it be poverty, illegal statuses, bad luck, health… [I] realize that in this case, not only having a voice, but being able to hear it, has really helped many people. We need to think of solutions for groups of people without that privilege as well; knowledge for everyone, please.”
His call for solutions to make information widely accessible, reminded me of an initiative of local news blogger Gromyko Wilson of 721news.com days before Irma made landfall. As the majority of local media in St. Maarten is in English and French, he decided to translate all government information to Spanish to inform migrants from Spanish speaking countries in the region.
The lack of accessible news for the Spanish-speaking migrants in St. Maarten, however, is not new, and has been an ongoing point of discussion among local journalists. While many of them have once considered offering multilingual news, the market for it simply is too small to make profit.
But there is more to learn about information privileges during Irma’s immediate aftermath. As the official disaster channel was out of service, St. Maarten was dependent on one commercial radio station that managed to stay on air: Radio Laser 101. Functioning as the “island’s heart and soul” during the devastating period, people dialed in to the station to express their hopes and despair – and sometimes criticize the lack of information provided by the government. While the owner of Laser 101 denies that the station was censored by the government to silence critique, rumors have it that the radio station was under pressure from local authorities.
In addition, journalists expressed difficulties in attaining official information. In an interview with Poynter, Gordon Snow, the managing editor of St. Maartens’ biggest newspaper The Daily Herald, said:
“Consider just the lack of gasoline and decent communications, and then throw in inefficient local government. It’s been tough to get basic information from important personnel.”
Whereas St. Maarten’s post-Irma situation is exceptional, the local power dynamics of who is informing whom, and who tries to control these dynamics, is not. Indeed, the highly diverse and multilingual population of the island is dependent on the abilities and choices of commercial media, which, in turn, are in need of information – and advertisements- from the ones in power: businesses and the government (often closely connected in the island’s society).
But, the wake of Irma also offers opportunities to rethink and change information privilege.
Putting a name to the local inequalities in access to information is a first step. The next step(s), however, that also is required by dependency on foreign news sources after Irma, is to go beyond dynamics on the island. Indeed, to make information more widely accessible in St. Maarten, we need to rethink local information privilege in relation to today’s globalized and digitalized world.
(Sanne Rotmeijer is a PhD Candidate at KITLV and the Department of Journalism and New Media, Leiden University. Her research which is part of the ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges’ project, focuses on how news media practice and interpret journalism in the communities of Curaçao and St. Maarten in light of local Caribbean realities in a globalizing world.)