Although misunderstood by many, the media’s role in ensuring a free flow of information, ideas and opinions remains a critical element in maintaining a healthy, fully functioning democracy. That is so even as rapid technological and social developments are changing how the media reach the masses around the world. As the industry evolves beyond traditional newspapers, radio and television outlets and now includes an array of social networks accessed electronically by an assortment of desktop and mobile electronic devices, one thing remains constant—the role of the news media as a “watchdog” has not changed. The proper development of any country is not possible without journalists to question the actions of government officials, confirm the truth of what officials tell the public and gather facts that citizens need to make informed decisions. That is exactly what happened when the T&T Guardian broke the story about the August 31 proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictible Proceedings) Act, alerting the nation to developments which had serious, very negative implications for the proper governance of this country.
It is inevitable that because the media carry out this very important function, their relationship with politicians is often antagonistic. Journalism, when properly practised, frequently casts an uncomfortable spotlight on elected and selected government and opposition officials to ensure that they uphold their oaths of office and carry out the jobs they were placed in political office to do. Some politicians would prefer media houses to be their unofficial public-relations outlets, churning out only articles and soundbites that make them look good. To do so, however, would be to undermine a very vital and healthy element of T&T’s democracy. It is clear that Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley is among the many T&T politicians who do not understand the role of the media. In his Republic Day message the PNM political leader thanks the media for doing their job, declaring that “the nation owes a deep debt of gratitude to those vigilant professionals who work in the mass media. These are the men and women who legitimise the doctrine that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It is therefore important to remind Dr Rowley that the T&T Guardian and other others have been doing just that throughout successive governments in T&T—not only now with the current Section 34 debacle, but throughout every social and political event that has caused upheavals in Trinidad and Tobago.
From what he said yesterday, it is obvious that the Opposition Leader does not fully appreciate that, as he said in his nice-sounding speech, the “role of the mass media in protecting us citizens from the excesses and indiscretions of unworthy leaders is not to be undervalued.” It is strange how politicians can only see that when they are in opposition. Two years ago, the PNM was claiming the PP had infiltrated the media and was orchestrating attacks on the government of the day—Patrick Manning’s PNM administration. At that time the hot-button issues included the role of the Calder Hart-led Udecott in several controversial multi-million-dollar construction projects. Now the PP is in power, making the same claims as their political rivals did leading up to the May 24, 2010, general election. Now, unfortunately, the political tactics have changed, for the worse.
Party supporters are being briefed to circulate distasteful campaigns via widely read e-mail forums on reporters who write exposes. The integrity, personal lives and mental health of these journalists are being targeted and of course their motivation for writing stories that embarrass one side or the other are being incorrectly portrayed as political. This is not only underhand and malicious but also misguided and ill-informed. The Guardian doesn’t simply take any material a reporter produces and publish it verbatim. Stories aimed at exposing wrongdoing must be based on accurate reporting backed with documentation and other evidence where needed. They must be edited to ensure they are fair and balanced, must allow the subject the opportunity to reply wherever possible and must be in the public interest. This newpaper’s slogan is “the Guardian of democracy,” and it has a reputation for credible and forthright journalism that it has upheld for 95 years—while politicians have come and gone.