ADDRESSING HIS CONCERNS: Surujrattan Rambachan

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Press freedom not under threat in T&T

On Monday March 25 while addressing supporters at the United National Congress (UNC) Monday night forum at the Carapo RC School in Arima, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar charged that "rogue elements" in the media were "either wilfully or unwittingly misinforming the society".

In the days to follow the International Press Institute (IPI) condemned the Prime Minister's statement.

Local Government Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan today shares with the Express correspondence between himself and the IPI expressing concerns about press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago after the incident.

March 30th 2013
International Press Institute

Dear Sir/Madam

Greetings!

I note with great concern your release about press freedom in Trinidad and the assertion that it is under threat. I wish to state categorically that press freedom is not under threat in Trinidad and Tobago and further that the freedom of the press is guaranteed under our Constitution. It will be important for me to understand from you, what particular incidents suggest that press freedom is under threat. If I may, I will like to state the following.

In my country under the current administration of Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar no journalist or media practitioner has been jailed, or threatened by the Government for being such. On the other hand, if a member of the Government feels that he/she has been unfairly treated by the media, then the laws of my country allow that member to seek legal redress. That is a right which should also be respected.

Within the past few months a number of press reports on members of Government have gone unsubstantiated. In the most recent case of Member of Parliament Anil Roberts who is also Minister of Sport, the press reported that he was sent by the Integrity Commission to the DPP. Despite the Integrity Commission refuting what the press said, there has been no retraction. Is it that the media should be given absolute freedom without responsibility for the truth?

In Trinidad and Tobago there are three daily newspapers, two weeklies and 37 radio stations. There are also five major TV stations. None of these have ever been shut down by this Government. All of these radio stations and TV stations carry very harsh and hard hitting talk shows which are often very critical and tough on the Government. The rights of those who own the stations as well as of the talk show hosts and those who call into the stations have never been challenged.

Even the President of your local chapter in Trinidad Ms Kiran Maharaj is associated with a TV station and several radio stations, one of which, 90.5 FM carries a talk show which at times is highly critical of the Government. Further the TV station with which she is associated has at least two programmes which at times contain material critical of the Government. None of these stations have been attacked by the Government. I use this example because it is one that can be easily proven given its nexus to the President of the local chapter of IPI. Of course I now run the risk of being described as attacking your President in Trinidad.

Whenever mention is made of the media by a politician, the first response is to say that the media is being attacked. Is it wrong to refute the media? What is it to attack the media? The media has not been stopped from publishing whatever it wants to publish no matter how defamatory it might be. That is a fact in Trinidad. Headlines are often not in sync with the stories and often lead to false judgements about the Government or individual members of the Government.

If it is the right of the media to educate and inform, some say to publish, then it is also the right of those who are affected to respond.

Please tell me what is so wrong with a prime minister asking for responsible journalism. What is wrong with asking for fairness from the media. One does not expect the media to be a propaganda machine for any government but at the same time is it not fair that the media should also publish the achievements of the government, or is it only the dirty stuff that the media is interested in?

I believe that in accusing the Trinidad and Tobago Government of attacking the media, you have been unfair since there is insufficient evidence, if any, to suggest that press freedom is under threat.

That you have internationalised your report is an injustice to the Government and people of this country who have always had a healthy respect for a free media. The damage having been done, who is to repair it?


Sincerely
Surujrattan Rambachan
Minister of Local Government
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