Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Media now facing dread new reality


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Until the courts rule otherwise, or the Parliament enacts legislation to the precisely prohibitive effect, the T&T Police reserve the right to come searching the newsrooms of the nation. Last Thursday's search-and-seize operations at Newsday confirmed that last December's lockdown of TV6 had been no aberration.

So far from the TV6 search having been a one-off exercise, the Newsday operation actually amounted to an escalation. Officers, not satisfied with searching the daily's newsroom and taking away computer equipment, moved to the home of a reporter, executing an identical mission.

In the event, T&T has somehow entered a dread new reality. Expectations must now be adjusted to reflect that media houses enjoy no status of sanctuary; and journalists working inside them can expect no benefit of exceptionalism from heavy-handed criminal crackdowns, even as they simply do their jobs.

What weight, in real, day-to-day terms, must now be given to the celebrated fundamental right of the freedom of the press? Until now, it had never been the case that media houses and media personnel could feel themselves directly threatened by coercive arms of the State.

That this could happen, and happen again, should dispose of notions of media entitlement to special  privilege. As noted by the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, the T&T media and T&T media people can take little comfort in expressions by the Prime Minister and other ministers, disassociating themselves from what happened at Newsday last week. It is indisputable that two life-changing events for the media occurred under their watch.

Sounds of outrage have come from both the government and the opposition. Still, the police are unlikely to feel deterred from future action trampling on now-inapplicable conventions by what amounts to just talk.

It is inconceivable that Senior Superintendent Solomon Koon Koon, who led the Newsday raid, had failed to calculate likely public reaction.  As he told an Express reporter: "There are people in this country who have a problem when the police don't do their work, and when the police do their work, there is a problem."

How the police define "their work", however, and the priorities they assign, are a big part of the problem. The conspicuous zeal displayed in searching newsrooms sharply contrasts with that shown in other investigations demonstrably going nowhere.

Again, while investigating allegedly unauthorised disclosures from inside the Integrity Commission, officers appear not to have searched the offices, homes and computers of commissioners and staff. Finally, as the virtual complainant in the investigations with such dire implications for the media, Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon, to save his own professional reputation, must now work with government and other legislators to ensure formulation and passage of clearly needed legislation: to protect whistleblowers; and to codify media rights.