Did Government cancel their contract with Cable TV for Wednesday? Is the media being muzzled?
PHILIPSBURG:--- The newly installed Gumbs cabinet has taken some radical decisions as to how they intend to deal with members of the media in the future. A press release from Gumbs press secretariat states that the Government of St. Maarten is the last county to establish a press secretariat, a department they said all other Caribbean nations such as St. Kitts have.
Having read the press release sent out by the press secretariat makes us wonder if St. Maarten is worse off than third world countries? St. Maarten for years has the department of communications (DCOMM) with competent staff that have been working almost round the clock to get information to the various media houses, apart from that they also compile special programs and even do work for Ministers when it comes to giving presentations. Their presence and role in government stands out most during natural disasters. While this department has been functioning with the little equipment and tools they have, they never had a plan of action or even a policy with specific guidelines simply because no one from government ever made it possible for them to get the necessary training to do an even better job. However, the current head of the department took it upon himself to conduct an investigation in order to have proper guidelines and trainings in place for the staff of DCOMM. It appears as though the work done is now water under the bridge because DCOMM and its staff has been placed on the back burner.
While DCOMM does need some structuring and some training in order for them to do a better job, the Gumbs cabinet chose to push DCOMM aside to do special informative programs, and they hired new staff even though the country cannot balance its budget to create the press secretariat. It is true that this department is needed but why did government put more financial strain on the already meager budget to create jobs for certain political pundits. The personnel cost of government took up most of its budget, while the indemnities government has to pay outgoing Ministers are beyond anyones imagination.
While adding more expenditures to government's budget the press release sent out Sunday evening did not state if the Government of St. Maarten has canceled the 10am to 11am hour they have blocked at Cable TV on Wednesdays for the weekly press briefings. Indeed they said Ministers will call press conferences when they need to and media personnel could go through the press secretariat to get faster reactions from Ministers because they (Ministers) all have busy schedules. It is indeed a nice way of selling the department and introducing the head of the department, but would any media house send their questions to this department or would they rather send it to the Ministers themselves in order to ensure that their questions and queries are preserved and not shared with other media houses?
DCOMM has several staff members who could have been moved to this new department in order to save government from more personnel expenses. Besides the budget issues it is clear that the Heyliger/De Weever/LRM government who said they are about integrity, transparency and democracy has taken a bold step to muzzle the few media persons that question them on behalf of the people of St. Maarten. Hopefully, the Gumbs cabinet will publish the MB that the Council of Ministers took on this issue in the next national gazette, at least that would be transparent because the full document will be made available not only to Members of Parliament but also to the general population.
It is a known fact that the Leader of the UPP Theodore Heyliger does not like to deal with the media unless you are in his corner, the Ministers he appointed over the last governing period acted the same way. For example now Member of Parliament Maurice Lake never attended any of the weekly press briefings while in office. The former Minister made several blunders while being a Minister and he was the one that sent out the most press releases but was never available to answer questions.
Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs in his address to the small gathering said his cabinet will focus on integrity, transparency and democracy. The questions now are how transparent is the Gumbs cabinet and where is the democracy when it comes to voters of St. Maarten if the media is now muzzled and Ministers are not there to give accountability for the decisions they took. Hopefully, the opposition in the Parliament of St. Maarten will see this move as undemocratic and use the time they have to question government in and out of parliament.
DCOMM in existence for two decades --- What is next for DCOMM?
It should be noted that the Department of Communication has been in existence for the past two decades, while the weekly press briefings actually started in 1996. Therefore, the people of St. Maarten that have been getting information twice a week will now hear from a press secretary who did not even pass the first press release by the Prime Minister prior to dissemination. While the title of press secretary is nice one must know that it is also a very heavy load.
Another observation SMN News made with the press release sent out on Sunday by the press secretary came from a Gmail email address while the Government of St. Maarten has it official website and server, if the press secretary is working for the Government of St. Maarten why is it an official email address from government was not used. This brings one to wonder if the press secretary company got a contract from government to serve as press secretariat, all of the above needs clarification. Also in the press release it mentioned Alston Lourens as a social media specialist, for those that don't know Mr. Lourens attended a two day training at Divi Little Bay that was organized by DCOMM, does that make Mr. Lourens a certified social media specialist? Apart from the qualifications on this issue one has to also wonder if Mr. Lourens will be receiving two salaries one for being a political appointee in the Ministry of Education and another for the new position he just recently attained.