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Journalist gets landmark $.6m for protecting his source
The Industrial Court has awarded $600,000 to former Trinidad Express journalist Darryl Heeralal for wrongful dismissal. On June 29, 2009, Heeralal was dismissed for failing to reveal the source of a story he had submitted to editor-in-chief Omatie Lyder. Heeralal sued the company after he was dismissed. The story concerned a probe into a shootout between police and bandits in Wallerfield in August 2007, in which Wendy Courtney, the mother of five, was among five people killed by police.
A group of Northern Division police were on patrol along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, near Agua Santa Drive, Wallerfield, when they intercepted a car carrying four men. There was a shootout and a stray bullet struck Courtney as she lay in her bedroom, killing her instantly. Heeralal was dismissed after he refused to reveal his source to Lyder when the police officers sued the Express for defamation after their matter was dismissed after a preliminary inquiry. In his evidence, Heeralal said in refusing to reveal his source he had expressed concern to Lyder about confidentiality within the newsroom and wanted that issue addressed before he would reveal his source. Justifying his approach, he said: “An entire arm of national security could have been compromised and there were death threats.” The company argued that the employee had failed to comply with a legitimate instruction and therefore there was a loss of trust.
However, the court yesterday ruled the reasons for dismissal were “not valid,” given the circumstances of the case, and that Heeralal “was denied the basic principles of a fair opportunity to be heard.” The Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU), which is the bargaining body for print journalists, asked the court for Heeralal to be reinstated or be granted damages of $750,000. But the court did not award the full amount. Speaking afterwards, Heeralal said while he was pleased about the ruling, he wanted the opportunity to clear his name, which he had built during his 11 years at the newspaper. He said the judgment showed a publisher was not in any position to force journalists to reveal their sources. He added: “Trinidad is one of the very few places where freedom of the press is constitutionally enshrined. The meat of journalism is sources. If a journalist has to be forced to reveal his sources, then journalists will stand on nothing.”