Parliament meets today for what is described as a mere formality, to confirm Justice Paula Mae-Weekes as this country’s sixth President.
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A real and present danger
“I have listened to the voices of the man on the street and the utterances of learned professionals from their respective platforms and understand some of the sources of confusion. And while I may not agree with all of the sentiments and views expressed, I embrace the debate and demonstration. It is your constitutional right to so do and we welcome those who feel so passionately about the state of the nation and its future.”—Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Section 34.
On February 6, 1996, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) requested a meeting with then prime minister Basdeo Panday over his increasing concerns with media standards which were being articulated publicly. As the then president of MATT, I was mandated to lead a delegation which met with Panday to discuss the issues.
Panday clearly outlined his major concern that he did not intend to allow the media to bring his government down as they seemed prepared to do. “They did it to Eric Williams, they did it to Chambers, they did to Robinson, they did it to Manning, but I do not intend to allow it to happen to me,” he said.
Patrick Manning, who both preceded and succeeded Panday as PM, never came to terms with the media either, and contrary to popular opinion, generally relied on his own counsel. The then PM stated at a PNM meeting in Woodford Square on July 13, 2009: “I long for the day, my dear friends, when I could truthfully say that the media in this country [are] living up to their responsibility. I leave it there.”
By the end of his term, so obsessed was he with the media, that he actually paid a visit to a radio station to register his protest. Later, he would tell the Parliament that media owners had fallen under the control of drug barons. Presumably, that may have been used as a pretext for his eavesdropping on journalists.
The media is now, however, facing a far more serious threat. Sunity Maharaj, Dr Sheila Rampersad, Dr Raymond Ramcharitar and Vaneisa Baksh, have already commented on the disturbing programme featuring five government officials, in which a minister singled out a female journalist with the chilling phrase “and you know her history . . . where she lives and so on...”
At the risk of being labelled sanctimonious, the ongoing campaign against independent journalists strikes at the very heart of the democracy that the PM suggests she cherishes. The TnT Mirror has reported—and I have personal knowledge of the fact—that the government is now actively using the same spying equipment for which Manning was so soundly condemned, as it intercepts the communication of journalists in the performance of their duties.
Following Denyse Renne’s story of the proclamation of the Section 34, and a subsequent investigation of a matter involving Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, SC, she was subjected to a campaign of intimidation including what purported to be Internet revelations of her private medical records and personal history.
The Government, led by the Attorney General and the Minister of National Security, has publicly announced that they are targeting journalists who they consider hostile to the official agenda. In a press release explaining his actions, Mr Warner explained: “What I did was to expose what I rightfully considered the duplicitous and disingenuous behaviour of one who works in the media and, in this particular case, the Express newspaper.
“We have justifiable reason to be concerned about the media bias in the country among the conventional media.”
A day earlier, the AG, speaking at a function in Penal, questioned the Guardian’s decision to engage me as a columnist as a result of my having worked as an adviser to his immediate predecessor John Jeremie. He ignored the fact that my successor, personally recruited by him, now writes for the Guardian and was recently presented with a national award for his contribution to journalism.
One could ignore this as political robber talk if the statement by the two senior members of the National Security Council were not accompanied by online threats and poisoned letters aimed at intimidating journalists in the performance of their duties. In some cases, not so veiled threats have been issued.
In my case, not only have the AG and a stream of anonymous bloggers begun to wage a campaign against me, but they have also targeted my wife with a libelous and scurrilous smear campaign. The same allegations have been posted on a UNC propaganda Web site dedicated to promoting the activities of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and run by a former journalist, Jai Parasram who was, until recently, the chairman of the Government Information Services Limited.
What we are seeing here is a campaign led or inspired by two government ministers aimed at instilling fear in the media, and intimidating journalists in the performance of their duties. The words of the Prime Minister are again not being matched by deeds of the members of the administration she leads.
A report on the political coverage of the local media was conducted by the Commonwealth Observer Group in 2000 following Mr Panday’s complaints. It found: “The media provided space in newspapers and on the airwaves to all shades of political opinion.
“They interviewed candidates and discussed election issues. Opinion surveys and the cut and thrust of the campaign were widely reported. However, we felt that in-depth coverage of the campaign policies and issues such as crime, the economy etc, was not as extensive as it might have been.” The media should not be intimidated as it seeks to cure this deficiency.
(Maxie Cuffie runs a media consultancy, Integrated Media Company Ltd, is an economics graduate of the UWI and holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow in Public Policy and Management.)