Journalists forced into self-censorship

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 23 Oct 05

 

Two moments defined Atlantic LNG’s inaugural Editors dinner held at Hilton Trinidad last week. Both chilling. Two bristling shocks in a wide, bright mirror reflecting the terror under which we live.

 

The catalyst was Atlantic LNG’s keynote speaker, Carl Bernstein, one of the most famous reporters in the last century, half of the Pulitzer prize-winning duo of investigative journalists who cracked the Watergate scandal in 1972 leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

 

The first moment was particularly menacing because it came at a timeless universal ritual of grace. A softly lit room, the hum of conversation, laughter, lips stained with wine, the assembling and dismantling of little groups.

 

So when Atlantic LNG’s Government and Public Affairs manager Esther Le Gendre took the podium, we looked expectant, waiting for the introduction to a journalist who has shaped American history, brought down a president.

 

Sitting in our evening dresses and suits, the light catching on a woman’s earrings, a wineglass tipped to the waiter, in that moment of grace before dinner, we got safety instructions in the event of an emergency.

 

As Ms Le Gendre spoke at length of the position of the exits, the alarm systems, our faces changed from bemusement (were we on an aircraft?) to discomfort, panic. Terror found its way into that room.

 

In the exact way that terror a bomb struck St James last Friday near a pub, in a district that represents with its mosque, church, doubles and roti vendors and rumshops, its mix of African, Indian, Chinese, Syrian, European inhabitants, the core of Trinidad.

 

A bright, lively place where anyone from lawyers to workmen stopped off to chill out, to absorb the mix of music shooting from boxes on either side of the road. That’s where terror struck. When it was least expected.

 

The victims were ordinary people still innocent enough to venture out in the evening believing that they were not kidnap or robbery material. They were wrong. We were reminded once again that terror is mindless, without cause or brain.

 

We were drawn out of our uneasy state back into the present by our keynote speaker, a large veteran American journalist conveying the right mix of irreverence and passion. Mr Bernstein reminded us journalists that ours was a vocation rather than a job, warned us to stay clear of the “idiot media culture” of celebrity and sensationalism.

 

He hammered home our duty. We are not merely mouthpieces for council meetings and sod-turnings. We are “the institution of the last resort, the keepers of the public good.”

 

Journalism is a duty and a vocation. “Follow the money,” Bernstein said. “Rape of the public good has to do with money. Always assume public officials are not telling the truth and dig and dig until you get the best version of the truth.”

 

He should know. In 1972 Bernstein and his colleague Robert Woodward discovered a link between the break-in at the Democratic National Committees headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington and the Nixon administration.

 

The duo knocked on 300 doors night and day until they got at the truth.

 

The burglary was orchestrated by high-ranking officials of the Nixon administration to re-elect the President. The bag of political dirty tricks of the White House was revealed, including wiretapping, burglary, and disruption of Democratic Party activities.

 

Which brings me to the second moment of horror. “Any questions?” asked Bernstein. Silence. That initial ten-second silence was deafening. Bernstein broke it by observing he had never encountered such a silent group of journalists.

 

We asked questions eventually, but tentatively, I’m ashamed to say.

 

Like a film in fast-forward frames of hundreds of images ran through my head. Of brutal assassinations, of hit men, of headless bodies, of ghost gangs, of corrupt ministers, of kidnappings, extremist Islamic groups, police corruption, state racism. No room for merit in this state of lawless criminal and political patronage.

 

Ours is not a physical muzzle but the worst kind: self-censorship. No one wants to be cut out by the State, by lawless forces, by big business owners. Follow the money and you’re dead in Trinidad, Mr Bernstein.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur