I am as annoyed as anyone else when a press report misquotes me or a newspaper prints an inaccurate story or allows contributors in its blogs to defame persons just based on a news report; but when it comes to attempts to clamp down on the freedom enjoyed by the media everyone who enjoys living in a democracy must collectively say, "No".
In the last 15 years or so, ever since the media has grown in numbers (now to three dailies, over 30 radio stations and a number of television stations) governments have had an uneasy relationship with the press. I well remember Mr Panday responding to a journalist: "that's insulting!" because she asked a question he did not appreciate. During that time the Government proposed legislation to "regulate" the media which was foreshadowed by a Green Paper on media reform. Fortunately heavy criticism of this move derailed the attempt before it got off the block.
When one media house fired a senior editor, because the PM at the time complained about a headline, for months that media house suffered a loss in sales and readers. In the last administration, when then-prime minister Patrick Manning dropped in unannounced at a radio station to criticise a journalist for some comments on air, there was a public outcry.
Fast-forward to 2012 when this Government came into power. One of the first things it did was to hire many top journalists as heads of information or whatever it was called in various ministries. Journalists/reporters from television, the print media and even radio were lured or allowed themselves to be lured out of their usual occupation for better- paying jobs as mouthpieces for various ministers or in the PR departments of ministries. Thus in the second half of 2010 many experienced journalists were lost to the media – and, by extension, the people of T&T.
Fortunately this apparent vacuum proved not to be critical since the exodus of some of the older heads allowed several younger and bright replacements to spread their wings, resulting in breaking story after story in the last year or two. Possibly because they were hungry and eager and properly mentored by the real journalists who were left, these younger journalists and the more experienced have combined to make the media a powerful fourth estate in T&T today.
It was primarily because of the media revelations and investigation that the whole fiasco of Section 34 was revealed to an unsuspecting public. Members of the media (initially mostly female) were the ones who led with the story from day one and pursued it to the bitter end during which others joined in the protest. Week after week the media has provided oversight over Government activities and errors to an extent probably not done anywhere else in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Were it not for the media's persistence many instances of abuse by State officials and others might not have been brought to the fore.
The latest that would be the sudden replacement of senior attorneys in the CLICO Commission of Enquiry for reasons unknown – except that a client is entitled to change attorneys. This might be so but not when it is the taxpayers who are ultimately footing the bill. The media is also on the ball in respect of the Eden Gardens lands, valued at $52 million by a private valuator but placed at $180 million by the Commissioner of Valuation. Speaking for myself I find it very surprising that a conservative State body would value land/property at a higher price than a private valuator. I find it even stranger that a State company would pay more than three times the price of a previous valuation and the Government would seek to justify the higher valuation. Does this in itself not seem off key? Minister Ganga Singh could repeat ad infinitum that we did not overpay for the land – no one would believe him.
In short, whether rightly or wrongly, the media enjoys the confidence of the public to an extent that the Government must envy – since they clearly do not enjoy the same confidence. This is a situation that some members of the Government must find intolerable, as evidenced by statements made by some.
What has been the response of the Government to this? About a month ago they reacted by buying out prime time spots on many media to hold something in the nature of a panel discussion among various ministers. That was an act of desperation if I ever saw one and did the Government no good – not even for the specific day – since many people just turned to cable.
Following the Section 34 scandal supporters of the Government, as evidenced by their comments, sought to denigrate and vilify reporters (mostly female) in the nastiest terms in blogs and on Facebook. I hope these reporters refused to allow these toxins to affect them. We next heard of a reporter's phone records being solicited by a State board because she was doing a story on the State company. One can only hope that this invasion of privacy is fully revealed so that reporters and journalists can continue to protect their sources and themselves from this kind of interference with press freedom.
The latest salvo is the announcement by the Minister of Communications that "most respectfully" the Government wants to access its entitlement to free media time to the tune of one hour per day in every radio station and television station. The reason? Because he says the State has a "duty to the population to relay its information publicly for people to be properly informed". I guess it is the Government who will determine the nature of the information and how we should be "properly" informed.
Sounds like propaganda by another name if you ask me – as if we did not have enough of that already.
* Dana S Seetahal is a former