A free press

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 22 Sep 02


“If there’s one thing we have going right in abundance for us” I heard a friend mutter as he fiddled with his car radio holding his dial here and there for snippets of talk, pausing for a snatch of a song he liked, raising his eyebrows to a hysterical campaign ad “is a free press”.

 

I know what he means. As tiny twin islands we may provide enough Banana Republic fodder to our home grown Nobel Laureate Mr. Naipaul to build several mansions for Mr. Biswas, as one half of the population, striking a stagnant pose, in a stagnant but quivering ballet led by leaders who either can’t make up their minds or don’t declare their accounts, does a face off with the other, but by God we assert our right to speak our minds.

 

Everyday hundreds of our people, the articulate, and inarticulate, politically correct, and ignorant, informed and rumour mongers air their unedited, uncensored mangle of opinions over some 20 frequencies.

 

If we sift out the hysteria, the warble garble, the hearsay, even the ignorance then we would have a lopsided image of our country, a landscape with whole pieces missing. As one famous historian once said what people think is going on in a country is much more real than what is actually going on because perception is all.

 

I came to this conclusion during a phone call from an avid female listener of talk radio who needed to vent her opinions on what she’d heard that morning. Her polemic started like this:

 

“On one station I heard the vitriol of someone calling themselves “the Gladiator”. This persons verbiage was spewed out to a background of the music from the Gladiator with all its connotations of providing entertainment to the bloodthirsty, fighting in a lions den,.

 

“This “Gladiator”, she continued “whose pitch was that of an unbelievably crazed evangelist, whose pauses were pierced with the sounds of sharpening knives, was calling on “his people” to rid the country of “vomit” a term he used to describe East Indians. He made menacing references to ‘blood on the streets,’ and disparaging remarks about an activist against domestic violence. I was shocked.”

 

Talk show had turned this listener garrulous.

 

“And on another station there were these two men, speaking indignantly of the wrongs done to “their forefathers”, making loud protesting noises against ‘the Gladiators racism while obviously representing their own Tribe. Their talk was punctuated with highly inflammatory campaign ads that play on people’s tribal instincts and attempt to frighten people into voting for a particular party with dark warnings against “becoming second class citizens.”

 

She asked seamlessly.

Don’t you think this tribal thing should be stopped?

 

“Simplistically speaking” I said “there are two schools of thought on sensitive and potentially inflammatory issues like racism in the media. The one is, bury it, so people are not aware of its extent or its existence, and are not openly exposed to its influence. The other is, let the voices of the people be heard so we can all have our ear to the ground, so we have a true mirror image of the dangers in our society.”

 

My radio listeners voice could have punctured my ear drum as she shrieked:

 

“I say censor this stuff because people are easily swayed by hype. Why don’t you call the station managers to let them know what’s going on” she asked unreasonably in a final burst of outrage before she rang off. I called them.

 

Andy Johnson the head of news and current affairs at power 102 home of “The Gladiator” said given the choice between repressing tribal views and airing them he would choose the latter.

 

“I prefer to have these views out in the open. it’s hypocritical  to say we shouldn’t speak of race when it is reflected in how people vote – besides, race only becomes an issue during elections. The country has endured a lot of shocks recently and people need to vent – which is actually safer because you see what’s going on. I have no fear that the country will go up in flames because there are a couple of extremists on radio. I know some people would rather not deal with it but it is the reality”

 

Although Kiran Maharaj, General Manager 90.5 director CL Communications admitted that her station has been accused of racism, she refutes it.

“90.5 caters for an East Indian market and interactive programmes will reflect the sentiments of the East Indian Community.”

Maharaj added that although she is a “Trinidadian first and foremost”, 90.5 belongs to a communication group that includes 97 and Ebony 104 which share a sales team. She says the group’s talk show hosts were “constantly reminded that we don’t want name calling and foul language”.

 

I thought as she spoke of the Holocaust – of how an atrocity committed by the Nazis cast a sinister pall over all of Europe because people knew what was going on in gas chambers, they knew of mountains of corpses, but were either too cowardly, too intimidated or too indifferent to speak up, to protest. I thought too of the sheer power of radio – of the fine balance between free speech and censorship, between incitement propaganda and a reflection of our society and hoped fervently that we had enough checks and balances in place, to prevent us from toppling off from our bridge of mangled words.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur