I as I am sure did many other citizens, spent the last week avidly following all the news I could find on the local investigation consequent upon the seizure by US Customs and Border Protection officers of an estimated TT$644 million worth of high-grade cocaine concealed in fruit juice cans originating from Trinidad.
The story is obviously a big one, made more so perhaps by the prospect that for the first time that I can remember a major drug trafficker (or traffickers) was going to be arrested and thus exposed. Even Mr Manning got caught up in the excitement when he reportedly stated on his Facebook page that his famous “Mr Big” was about to be unmasked.
Given that level of excitement it can be fully appreciated that all the reporters and investigative journalists in all our print and electronic media would be falling over themselves to be the first to bring all the latest developments in the case to a news-hungry public.
Not surprisingly therefore the story has turned into something of a journalistic feeding frenzy with each reporter and each media house seeking to explore every angle of the story they could think of and seeking to recruit every possible “source” that could lend something new to the unfolding saga.
The fact is that, as I write, it has been only ten days since the US Customs and Border Protection agents staged a press conference in Norfolk, Virginia, in which they gave details about the seizure of the drugs. In those ten days our press and electronic media have delivered to the public such a farrago of hearsay, speculation, contradictory statements and downright gossip, that as I write this column I can truthfully say that I know no more as to what is really going on with the investigation than I knew ten days ago.
Do not get me wrong. I applaud journalistic enthusiasm and initiative. I applaud an attitude that refuses to accept silence and seeks always to ferret out the true story. But it is particularly in circumstances where the truth is difficult to come by and competition is keen, that editorial circumspection and restraint is all the more necessary.
What we have had instead is a display of the most slipshod journalism operating, it would seem, under conditions in which every tenet of editorial control and prudence has been abandoned.
Take as an example the following report in one of the daily papers: “Shipping documents relating to the export of local juices to Virginia were seized yesterday by United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and local law enforcement officials, as they closed in on the suspects believed to be behind the estimated TT$.6 billion cocaine seizure last month.”
Then in the same report, in the very next paragraph, we are told: “The US probers, sources added, have been working independent of local investigators.” (Since it is not my intention to embarrass any particular reporter or media house I will not identify the reports quoted. In any case all the media houses have been guilty of shoddy work in this affair.)
But that is not the only example. One television station assured us on its nightly newscast that the DEA had their sights trained on a particular prominent T&T businessman. Two nights later that became three suspects that the DEA was looking at.
In fact, as far as the DEA itself is concerned, we are first told by one reporter that their agents came into the country after the seizure of the drugs in Virginia. Then we are told in another report that the DEA has been in the country for months investigating this drug ring.
In another report in another daily paper we read: “Arrests in the $640 million cocaine bust could be coming in a matter of days, after the United States Justice Department yesterday issued a Diplomatic Note to this country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.”
The very next day the same paper reports, without comment, explanation or apology the following: “Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Dookeran yesterday said he has not yet received any note to request the extradition of any suspects in the recent attempt to smuggle cocaine from Trinidad to the United States.”
Then there was the daily paper which, in its hunt for any item of news with the faintest bearing on the investigation, devoted considerable space to a report that a convicted drug trafficker wanted to speak to the DEA because his time in prison had given him insight into how the international drug trade operated.
I have a suggestion for all our media houses and reporters. Let us call a halt to all our several efforts to uncover sources, get the latest zeppo and buss the latest mark. Let us take a step back and await the results of the investigation. And if it turns out that some person or persons currently unknown are arrested then we can do a proper investigation and maybe even unmask other “Mr Bigs”.
But for now let us take a collective sigh and reflect a bit on our journalistic responsibility: To inform, to educate, to entertain. Not to confuse and confuffle the public.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer
and commentator on politics
and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.