Monday, January 22, 2018

Watch the wolves!

The brutality of two senior ministers last Monday night towards Wayne Kublalsingh and his family, unrebuked by the Prime Minister who spoke after, gives us a window into the darkening soul of the leadership of the United National Congress. What we witnessed was the smouldering fire of totalitarian intolerance within the hearts of key players of the Government. This could burst into a raging conflagration and consume the nation. We must watch the wolves.

It is the dark nature of many who pursue public office. Power is their principal purpose. Rare is the person wanting only to serve. All politicians should therefore be closely scrutinised. The greater their hunger for power, the more dangerous they are to the children. They pretend to be champions of democracy and human rights, but given the chance, they would take away your freedom; for the more liberties you enjoy, the less power they have.

The freedom they fear most is public opinion. They therefore hate an independent media; and when the press does not grovel, their authoritarian tendencies surface. The evidence is abundant in our history. Over the last 15 years, two prime ministers, from each of our main parties, tried to directly intimidate the media, one even inciting a partisan crowd against reporters and cameramen. Today, ministers are on the boil, threatening, accusing, revealing reporters' personal lives and attempting to commandeer broadcast time on private media. The PM herself is now leading the charge to upgrade libel laws which some see as the Trojan horse for media control like "developmental journalism'' in the NAR days and the infamous "Green Paper'' of the first UNC administration. They are all the same. Control is the goal. The wolves always circle.

They should learn from Eric Williams. He was a lion. He never feared the media. He just didn't think much of its intellectual content. He burnt a copy of a newspaper in Woodford Square, out of contempt more than anything else. But he was a true democrat. He never threatened press freedom. Indeed when he could have enacted draconian legislation after the No-Vote campaign, Williams enshrined media freedom as a constitutional right. He allowed public opinion to flourish during his 25-year rule, entrenching the cornerstone of our young democracy. All felt free to criticise him, politicians, trade unionists, social activists, journalists, calypsonians, commentators, artists, university lecturers; all had a field day. And he gave as good as he got. He lambasted many with withering analyses of their inadequacies, including "let the jackass bray''; but he never denied anyone their freedom to criticise. And you never felt threatened by him, that he would jail and torture opposition as they were doing in some other former colonies. He was unforgivably uncouth with "recalcitrant minority'' or "get to hell out of here''; but his colourful speech also produced gems like "massa day done'', that mobilising summons for self-determination.

But instead of learning from this giant, when our political dwarves fail to frighten the private media, they turn in desperation to State-owned broadcasters to "get their message across'', hiding in the bubble created by the dulcet tones of friendly journalists who ask no real questions. Silliness! Who takes on government propaganda? People, including supporters, look for the "real news'' elsewhere.

The government has no business broadcasting news, competing with the private sector. As a cabinet minister in 2001, I commissioned a diagnostic of Trinidad and Tobago Television by PricewaterhouseCooper's which confirmed that TTT had woefully low and declining viewership principally because it was perceived as the mouthpiece of government. I willingly accepted the recommendation that the state should disengage from this enterprise. This was rejected by Basdeo Panday's cabinet; and later, the Patrick Manning administration, based on the same study, chose the ridiculousness of closing down TTT and reincarnating it as CNMG with the continuing drain on the Treasury.

Amazing! Demonstrating sameness, our two main parties denied incontrovertible evidence on the futility of government propaganda in our democracy. They could not accept that to win the battle of ideas, persuasion is pivotal, requiring subtlety and sensitivity as well as gladiatorial guts and skill in the information arena. But I suppose for that, you need credibility, that precious commodity lacking in most politicians. So instead of developing moral fibre and competence, they threaten and abuse and escape into the false security of propaganda where unearned superlatives abound, to no avail. People switch channels or turn the page, a most aggravating freedom to politicians.

How they wish they could take that freedom away. Some are even prepared to buy up private media, to control information and opinion. These are fascists in the making. Watch them. The power-hungry need to control your mind. They want uniformity of views. Variety of opinion means a free environment where autocrats feel like the outsider, insecure, even frightened. It's pathetic. Tyrants suffer from abnormally low levels of self-sufficiency. They must have their presence felt all the time, everywhere. It is the insatiable hunger that drives despots and which makes them eventually devour nations and peoples. It is at the root of the totalitarianism that has destroyed hundreds of millions of lives in the course of human civilisation; potential for which is alive in Trinidad and Tobago.

This is a real danger here. Public opinion must be strong. Ours is weakened by political tribalism. But there are positive signs, like the support for Wayne Kublalsingh. Congratulations to all who stood up. You pointed to a possibility that we, the people, can redeem ourselves from our complacency and become masters of our destiny, rather than remain the "base degrees'' by which politicians ascend to rule rather than serve. So keep the vigil. Watch the wolves.

Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister.