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Category: Trinidad Politics 17 Nov 13
 

“Every politician who has tasted power, and many who counted for little, has gone to war with the media. If they didn’t, that would signal that journalists were not doing their jobs, that they were too busy prostrating to power to do their duty to country.”

—Raffique Shah, March 30, 2013.

 

It’s a collective existentialist nightmare. In these fishbowl islands of ours, with many big fish pushing the little ones around and around and around, history repeats itself endlessly. So when, for a story, a politician verbally attacks a reporter— in this case, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan denouncing several investigative journalists as a team of “undercover PNM media agents”—it is old news. It is such stale news that it is equal to the journalists’ maxim of “dog bites man.” The story began with our first prime minister, Eric Williams.

Veteran journalist Raffique Shah recently recalled in a blog that even before he came to power in 1956, Williams was so incensed by being branded a “communist” by the Trinidad Guardian that he burned copies of the newspaper in Woodford Square “to the delight of throngs of supporters.”

Shah reminds us that in 1970, Williams “declared war” against the Express accusing it of “harbouring radicals and fermenting revolution.” Shah, Owen Baptiste, Earl Lovelace, Wally Look Lai, George Weeks and Basdeo Panday were among those banned from state-owned media. Raoul Pantin, Jerome Rampersad and Tony Williams were fired.  Shah recalls that after Williams, even our timorous Prime Minister the late George Chambers raged at the media at a PNM meeting in Arima, and ANR Robinson following the NAR landslide in 1986 “turned beast” after the fallout with Panday.

I can take over the story here because I was working at TV6 when the silver fox, Basdeo Panday, as Prime Minister, railed against the media at political meetings and sent TV6’s senior journalist, Julian Rogers, packing to Barbados on the charge that he wasn’t working here with a valid work permit.  In more recent history, Patrick Manning, as Prime Minister, “visited” Radio 94.1 FM to complain about a broadcast that led to the suspension of two employees at the radio station. It was the same old stale story in March 2013 with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s comments about “rogue elements” in the media.

Shah believes the “worst is yet to come.” I believe this.  I don’t believe there is any truth in the AG’s charges about reporters being "undercover PNM agents" (we are all too cynical for that); there is nothing wrong about a journalist or newspaper being affiliated with a political party. For example, the UK Guardian openly hovers between Labour and Liberal, and the Telegraph and Times support the Conservative party.

The trouble with us is that our political parties don't come with ideologies—every politician is a King of his Ministry and not a servant of the people—so exposure of wrongdoing is petulantly perceived as an attack on individuals and affiliation with “the other side.”

In a few weeks we will forget this story, the journalist, and the politician who attacked her. It’s been done before. Nothing changes materially. But each time it happens, it has an insidious, corrosive effect on journalism, journalists and media as the Fourth Estate—the fourth branch of our politics.

Without anything being said, a lot happens. As the ultimate employer and largest advertiser, it is inevitable that political displeasure in the form of the Big Brother “Government” threatens private enterprise, and looms like a sword of Damocles over journalists.  Those dirty words: selfcensorship.

When a powerful government rolls juggernaut-like over journalists (most struggling, most doing the job they do because of the love of the work— there is no money in it), important things are no longer said; no longer reported. When reporters begin to look the other way, a democracy is threatened; our mirror to ourselves is sullied.  The media holds up a mirror to societies and are the first cousin to human rights. Even those in power should protect journalists because one day they may be opposition, and tremendously grateful for this check and balance against potential abuse of power that inevitably targets the weakest among us (that's 80 per cent of the population).

I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes. Newsrooms everywhere, worldwide, are notoriously always stretched for resources, staff, and deadlines. Secretly editors feel that every day a paper is published (there is no such thing as a holiday from the news) is a small miracle. We know we could do more, do better. We could nudge politicians towards dealing with issues, like the Daily Mail reporter Stephen Wright, who for 15 years pounded the story of Steven Lawrence, a young black British man brutally murdered by racial thugs. This sustained journalism resulted in profound cultural changes in UK attitudes on racism, the police, and the law; two of the perpetrators were convicted almost 20 years later in 2012.

A brave journalist broke the Section 34 story. She changed things, wiped the mirror clean.  We know we need to do more, not less of this sustained journalism. Each time journalists are blocked from monitoring the political process, blocked from ensuring elected representatives uphold their oaths of office, blocked from our job as watchdogs to ensure power isn’t abused, the mirror cracks and a nation starts to go blind. 

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur