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As Jamaica Reviews Its Homosexuality Ban, a Top Newspaper Is Waging an Anti-Gay Campaign

Owned by the millionaire businessman behind the Sandals Resorts franchise, which banned gay couples until 2004, The Jamaica Observer's coverage has prompted an outcry from LGBT groups.

by Josh Surtees
Nov 18 2014, 4:10pm

Image via Reuters

Something is going on at The Jamaica Observer, the daily newspaper owned by the Sandals Resorts millionaire, Gordon "Butch" Stewart, in the Caribbean island nation.

LGBT rights have featured heavily in its pages over the past six months and, although the paper claims to support freedom of expression and balanced journalism, critics note that some of the content has been overtly anti-gay — even going so far as to claim that gay men are killing each other and deliberately portraying the murders as homophobic.

Among the coverage questioned by local activists — which coincides with a government move to reform laws prohibiting same-sex relationships — is an editorial titled "The Pushback Against Gays Has Begun," an unsourced story alleging a gay gang-rape of a male jogger and another, headlined "Homo Thugs!," claiming that "gun-toting gays" are terrorizing local communities and that many top figures in the criminal underworld are homosexual.

There is no evidence that Stewart or his son Adam, CEO of the holding company ATL Group, are responsible as The Observer has editorial independence from its owners.

The Sandals franchise famously barred gay couples from 1981 until 2004 before eventually changing its policy following international pressure and a ban on its advertising on the London Underground by then mayor Ken Livingstone.

A story carried on the front page of The Jamaica Observer on June 8. Image via www.jamaicaobserver.com

Asked by VICE News about the publication of anti-gay rhetoric by Jamaican newspapers, Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC) said "It has happened at both national newspapers over the years though this year the rhetoric was particularly loaded and hostile to homosexuals, especially in The Jamaica Observer but The Gleaner was also guilty."

The island nation is currently experiencing heightened social tension over the LGBT rights debate as Jamaicans — encouraged by religious and conservative groups — voice their objections towards a government-led select committee review of the Sexual Offences Act, which could potentially lead to a parliamentary vote on decriminalising same-sex relationships.

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With that backdrop, on 22 June, the Observer's crime desk editor, Karyl Walker, wrote a column in which he explained why he had walked out of a press conference held by CVCC.

In the column, Walker said he had been "unfairly branded an enemy of gays" because of articles he has written, including one featuring an interview with former Assistant Commissioner of Police Les Green, who "stated that 99 per cent of the murders committed against gays were perpetrated by gays themselves."

Walker continued: "Having covered crime in this country for over a decade I have intimate knowledge (no pun intended) that Green's statement rings true and that many times gays kill each other only for activists to squeal to the foreign press and international lobbyists that the killing was a homophobic act."

Three days earlier, on 19 June, the newspaper had run the editorial headlined "The Pushback Against Gays Has Begun," which claimed that: "The [gay] community's leadership has told outright lies against the Jamaican nation, by consistently portraying gay-on-gay violence as evidence of "homophobia" and abuse of gays. This has assisted in gaining sympathy from fellow gays overseas and, in some cases, asylum and funding."

Following criticism of its coverage by rights organisations, the paper explained its position in a July editorial, in which it said it would continue to allow contributions from commentators on both sides of the debate and defended the right of entertainers and the church to hold views against homosexuality.

"In common with nearly every country across the globe, Jamaicans are agonizing over whether homosexuality is to be accepted as normal or aberrational," the editorial stated, before continuing, "Jamaicans must be free to choose to live their sexuality in conformity with the laws of the land."

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The latter statement, while appearing to support sexual freedom, also upholds Jamaican legislation, including the 1864 Offences Against The Person Act, a colonial-era law that prohibits "the abominable crime of buggery" and sets punishment at ten years' imprisonment with hard labor.

The paper has kept its promise of providing a platform for both sides of the debate, publishing comment pieces by those in support of gay rights and law reforms while also running a steady stream of columns, cartoons, leaders and crime reports that would be deemed homophobic in the UK. The cartoons, written and illustrated by Clovis Brown, have relentlessly mocked gay men.

Gomes — who was awarded the UN Human Rights prize in 2008 — co-founded the citizens' rights action group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) in 1999 but resigned in 2013 after a nationwide furor when JFJ produced sex education leaflets for 12 to 18-year-olds that were deemed offensive because they mentioned anal sex.

Asked whether it is acceptable for the Observer to provide a platform for intolerance in a country where gays are victimized, she responded, "I don't see it as acceptable for any media house to commission cartoons and columns that are specifically anti-gay. The cartoons were at times so hysterically and hatefully demonising and denigrating of homosexuals as to border on 'hate speech'."

"The rhetoric of some commentators and some of the editorials was at times defamatory," she added.

According to a spokesman for CariFLAGS (Caribbean Forum for the Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities) who did not wish to be named, the Observer's executive editor, Desmond Allen, "has in the past shared that Clovis the cartoonist may very well be homophobic but he allows him the latitude to express his opinion."

"Jamaica scores very high in all press freedom surveys and unfortunately some journalists do not use this freedom responsibly," the spokesman told VICE News. "In a small and highly competitive marketplace such as Jamaica, the Observer has seemingly decided to distinguish itself as the conservative newspaper and as such their style is not as liberal as the Gleaner has become in recent years. In times past both national newspapers were expressly anti gay."

Walker's crime desk has often focused on homeless members of the gay community, some of whom have taken to living in a large drain under a road in Kingston while others have squatted in derelict houses.

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A cartoon by Clovis Brown published in The Jamaica Observer in July 2011. Image via anniepaul.net

Crime reports appear with headlines like "Gun-Toting Gays Drive Fear in Citizens of Garrison Communities" — an article that scarcely mentions the gun-toting gays referred to in its headline, instead offering a derogatory account of an encounter with a gay man "with all the attributes of a woman" — and "Male Jogger Gang-Raped," a front-page story which, according to Gomes, "had no complainant, no complaint, no byline, no police report and no eye witnesses."

Observer editorials have expressed the newspaper's support of professor Brendan Bain, who was earlier this year fired from his post as the director of the regional HIV training program at the University of the West Indies for giving evidence in a Belize court case that supported Belize's retention of its anti-buggery law. Bain's evidence suggested that countries that prohibit gay sex reduce the spread of HIV — a view contested by the World Health Organization.

The Observer described Bain's sacking as "the latest example of how we self-destruct as a nation," while columnist Alfred Sanger characterized his removal as "head-hunting." At The Gleaner, columnist Daniel Thwaites claimed Bain had been "beheaded by gay Taliban."

On a separate occasion, Observer columnist Mark Wignall described anal sex as "a disgusting act carried out by many homosexuals."

The most concerning element to international human rights watchdogs is the assertion that gays are falsely labeling murders as homophobic. Homicide detection rates in Jamaica are low, and particularly so when gay people are killed. Evidence that a homophobic hate crime has taken place is rarely found and some police officers and journalists instead point to "crime of passion" killings — such as that of 65-year-old British diplomat John Terry, said by Jamaican authorities to have been murdered by a younger lover in 2009 after the relationship turned sour — to back up their claims of gay-on-gay violence.

As to the Sandals connection, the CariFLAGS spokesman said, "The Stewart family does not exercise editorial control over the newspaper." He added: "Sandals has made tremendous progress in the last decade and has grown to be a very inclusive space. The tourism sector in general is very gay friendly…and may well be Jamaica's largest employer of LGBT people."

Follow Joshua Surtees on Twitter: @Josh_ua_Surtees