Last Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution affirming that journalist safety is a fundamental element of freedom of expression. Ironically, the resolution, which calls on states to “promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently,” was passed just as senior government ministers in T&T launched fierce attacks on two local journalists for their recent investigative work. Among other things, the resolution “calls upon states to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.” Also significant is that passage of this UN resolution comes just a few months after the ground-breaking Joint Declaration on Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, adopted during the International Press Institute’s World Congress held in Port-of-Spain in June. The declaration requires state officials to desist from statements that increase the vulnerability of journalists and others who are targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Had the People’s Partnership taken note of these recent resolutions, they might have been more measured in their responses to recent exposes by Denyse Renne of the T&T Guardian and Express reporter Asha Javeed. The virulence with which the reports—and the reporters—were attacked, via social networks and a PP-sponsored simulcast on several television stations last Wednesday, is the opposite of what respected international agencies advocate. Other governments have attacked journalists in the past when stories surfaced that showed them in an unfavourable light. Shooting the messenger is an old trick, calculated to deflect attention from the real issue and undermine the credibility of the story and the reporter. On the topic of Section 34, however, the story was too big, and its seriousness grasped by too many people, for that tactic to work. Some members of the Government and their supporters reacted by intensifying their attacks, sparing no imagined detail of the motives and conduct of the reporters in question. Unfortunately, extreme responses to unfavourable issues are not uncommon with Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s PP administration. This is, after all, the government that found it necessary to stage a pre-budget rally on Saturday to build up support for the fiscal package even before it was unveiled in Parliament yesterday. Just before that there was the forgettable paid PP programme on Wednesday night.
Although neither event was promoted that way, both turned out to be thinly disguised opportunities for PP officials to hit back at their critics. Very little of the content could be properly linked to the budget. One problem with these over-the-top political activities is that they can be very expensive and very exhausting—particularly in a country that has been through quite a few intense election campaigns in the last decade. In any case, such responses are not necessary for a government that controls a comfortable majority in Parliament and has managed to keep its coalition together, in the face of a small and still divided Opposition. Another clear advantage for the PP administration is that it is only halfway through its five-year term, with little risk of being forced into an early election. Yet this administration has developed a reflexive habit of wheeling out its well-oiled political guns and training them on any target that comes in sight, no matter how small. The first reaction is to stoke the fires and ramp up the temperature of public debate and discussion—while also lowering the bar. The result is not enlightened, rational, civil discussion, but mudslinging and verbal abuse. The only thing the Government should be worried about is the negative fallout from the current frenetic pace of election-style activities and overheated exchanges so far outside an actual campaign season. The public can take only so much.