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Wilchcombe championed a free press

Obediah “Obie” Wilchcombe, the minister of social services and the member of Parliament for West Grand Bahama and Bimini, has died.

Many will remember him as a politician, a statesman, a minister of tourism, and a nationalist and an orator.

For our part, we will remember him most vividly as a champion for the fourth estate in The Bahamas.

Wilchcombe was a journalist for most of his professional career and was a household name as a broadcaster with the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas.

Even after entering politics, he never stopped supporting a free press, no matter how critical the press corps was of him.

But it was Wilchcombe’s willingness to protect his journalistic integrity by enduring prison to protect the identity of a source that inspired a generation of journalists to have courage and push the bounds of what systems of the state dictate should and not be made public.

During the inquiry into the death of death row inmate John Higgs, who committed suicide on January 6, 2000, just two days before his scheduled execution, Obie Wilchcombe was called upon to disclose the source from which he had received a letter authored by Higgs which he had read live on air.

It detailed the harsh, inhumane, and degrading conditions prevailing within Fox Hill prison and on death row.

Prior to this, a law lord from the Privy Council had already strongly criticized the prison conditions, referring to them as “sub-human”.

Obie Wilchcombe declined to respond to this inquiry, citing his reluctance to divulge this information due to concerns that it might lead to the identification of the individual responsible for smuggling the letter out of the prison to him.

Wilchcombe was sentenced to a four-day imprisonment in maximum security at then-Her Majesty’s Prison, Fox Hill, by then-coroner and magistrate, the late Winston Saunders, for not revealing the location of where he received the suicide note.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision, prompting Wilchcombe to commence a hunger strike on the very same day, in protest of both the court’s ruling and the absence of legislation safeguarding journalists.

Wilchcombe stated at the time, “It is a matter of principle, and it is worth the fight. It is a struggle. With all struggles you must fight for what you believe in.”

His imprisonment for refusing to capitulate to what many viewed as a violation of his fundamental right to expression caught the attention of Amnesty International.

The organization said, “Wilchcombe’s sentencing will have a chilling effect on journalists, who could be deterred from making public information about human rights abuses by the authorities out of fear of imprisonment.

“Journalists must be allowed to protect their confidential sources of information.

“His imprisonment could also intimidate and silence people willing to provide information about human rights violations in the future because of fear of exposure.”

Wilchcombe never resiled from his position that journalists should be fearless.

In 2018, he urged aspiring journalists at the University of The Bahamas to go beyond the mundane.

“I think that journalists should lead the discussion and not wait for someone to tell them what to do,” he said.

“We are [now] regurgitating what someone says, but where is your research and where is the story that you are looking for that nobody has?

“The journalist must interpret, collect, understand, put history to it and put facts to it and then tell me about it.”

He continued, “When I was a young journalist, the whole thing was about getting ‘the scoop,’ but now when you pick up local dailies, everyone seems to be telling the same story.”

He also called for employment and legal protection for journalists who tell hard truths in a responsible manner.

“Right now, the journalist is subjected to whatever somebody decides,” he said. “So, if we can move in that direction where we are able to see more security for journalists then they can go out there and get the stories that need to be told, because he would be comfortable that he has a secure tenure with his employer.”

The role of a free press in a democracy is critical.

And though we often criticized Wilchcombe, he understood our role and never took it personally.

Wilchcombe had much to be proud of for his service to his nation, but we will remember him most for his commitment to journalism.