Monday, 20 February 2012

Collateral Media Damage

The February 9, 2012 police raid on the Newsday newspaper of Trinidad and Tobago and the home of journalist, Andre Bagoo, marked a significant turning point in relations involving the country’s media, officialdom and the population.

I have long contended that press freedom is not an instinctive rallying point for people of this small twin-island state (nor for the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean for that matter). That people are more culturally inclined toward direct, official censorship and regulation than they are toward unfettered media activity and free expression.

The Newsday raid, and ensuing intimidatory tactics by the police, generated largely negative comment. But many were those who wondered why the press seemed to want to do its work by operating “above the law.”
Indeed, this line of argument was initially invoked by no less a person than the Police Commissioner, Dwayne Gibbs, himself.

It might be that many, including this Canadian police executive turned Caribbean commissioner, are unaware of the special protection of the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago which has as a specific provision in its Bill of Rights for freedom of the press.

The actions of the police also followed a report on the presumed leaking of information to the press from the country’s Integrity Commission, now chaired by former media entrepreneur, Ken Gordon – considered by many to be among the modern pioneers of regional press freedom activism. It was Gordon himself who threatened to get to the bottom of what appeared to be an unlawful sharing of confidential Integrity Commission information.

Few thought the action instigated by Gordon would have led to one of the more outrageous assaults on a media enterprise in recent Trinidad and Tobago history. Of course, both Newsday and the reporter have to date refused to disclose the source of the information for the offending news story – the content of which had later been confirmed by Gordon himself during a television interview.

Needless to say, the local representative media organisations – Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago and Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association – roundly condemned the raids. They were later joined by the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and regional media organisations from Jamaica, Guyana and Grenada and international organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, International Press Institute, National Association of Black Journalists and others.

To date, there has been no serious, widespread activism and public reaction to the raids. Letters to the newspaper editors that have been critical or condemnatory have, by and large, been partisan in nature and have attempted to stimulate political debate on the commitment of the current administration to press freedom in an attempt to score political points.

Of course, such contentions might indeed be the case. But there is the question of moral authority on this subject, since there has been no political administration in the country’s 50 years of independence that can be pointed to as being genuine defenders of the free press.

Few have pointed to the potentially chilling effect of the police actions on journalists and the practice of journalism in the country. Will my home be the subject of a police search? Will the hard drive on my computer be subjected to a forensic examination? Will I be taken down to the local police station for questioning?

What can in effect happen is that the media may well temper their aggressive position of getting to the bottom of a growing list of matters of public concern and interest. It is not good enough for the politicians to simply speak of a commitment to press freedom.

A very similar event took place on December 29, when the police entered the premises of Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) in search of a contentious recording. The events leading to the search require a far more extensive examination than this quick blog entry. But the heavy police presence at CCN reeked of harassment and intimidation.

The police and their defenders, including some political activists supportive of the government, have pointed to the lawful nature of the raids. Search warrants had been properly obtained, and arguably legal bases for the raids had been established.

But when will our countries realise that something can be absolutely lawful and yet be completely wrong?

The other question that arises is the extent to which the three and a half month State of Emergency declared in 2011 which ended in December - ostensibly to put a serious dent on criminal crime and the networks that support it – may have contributed to a heightened sense of impunity by the police on the question of people’s rights.

Could it not be that the State of Emergency has emboldened a beleaguered, embattled police service to act as it has since December?

The turning point in relations I alluded to at the start of this submission has to do with the alignment of opinions on the question of rights and freedoms. Those of us who believe we can win the development game through the greater exercise of our freedoms appear increasingly to be among shrinking ranks.

The Newsday raid raised fundamental questions related to this dichotomy and some of us are not comfortable with what we are hearing as a response. Freedom of the press is subject to painful and even terminal collateral damage.

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