In an unending crusade for truth, media practitioners around the world shine the spotlight on various institutions and public officials. However, in 2012, the local media were on the receiving end of the bright glare of public attention. The actions and alleged actions of media personalities and companies turned news reporters into news stories.
The media of Trinidad and Tobago were embroiled in various conflicts with Government ministers and facing controversial raids by the Police Service. Local, regional and international media organisations condemned a number of these incidents.
In February 2012 officers stormed into Newsday's offices at Chacon Street in Port of Spain. Nine officers of the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau executed a warrant and searched the desk and computer of journalist Andre Bagoo, allegedly with respect to an article he wrote on December 20, 2011 about a row between Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon and deputy chairman Gladys Gafoor. Bagoo's Belmont home was also raided by the police.
Former prime minister Basdeo Panday described the police raid as atrocious and unacceptable and blamed the People's Partnership Government for "recent attacks on the media", saying it intends to rule by force and fear.
Chairman of the Police Service Commission Prof Ramesh Deosaran said an unnecessary level of muscle was used in that raid and another in December 2011 of CCN TV6.
"It disturbed the public and it disturbed a lot of us who have always cherished
freedom of the press, even when we have been criticised and sometimes treated unfairly (by the media). It is better to have a free press on all circumstances," said Deosaran.
Then-commissioner of police Dwyane Gibbs said the police were only doing their jobs and public information officer of the Police Service Sgt Wayne Mystar said it was no attack on press freedom.
Gibbs was criticised by five international media organisations, citing in a letter "brutal breach" of protocol in the police raids on the two media houses. The letter, dated February 16, was sent by the National Association of Black Journalists, the Global Journalism Task Force, the International Press Institute (IPI), the IPI North American Committee and the Unity Journalists of Colour.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago called on Gibbs to apologise and the incident was also heavily criticised by the Press Association of Jamaica and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.
Bagoo did not reveal his sources and his newspaper stood by him.
CL FINANCIAL PROBE
In October 2012, Express political editor Ria Taitt declined to reveal her source during a probe to determine who leaked to her the witness statement of former CL Financial chairman Lawrence Duprey to the Commission of Enquiry into the collapse of CL Financial and the Hindu Credit Union.
Lone commissioner of the enquiry, Sir Anthony Colman, then decided to drop the probe, explaining it would be "unsatisfactory" if the enquiry got "bogged down" with an investigation to determine Taitt's source.
IAN ALLEYNE ARRESTED
In April 2012, TV6's Crime Watch host Ian Alleyne was arrested at Express House in Port on Spain (Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) is the parent company of TV6 and Express).
The story, however, began in December 2011 when a large contingent of officers had executed a warrant at CCN TV6's offices as part of a probe relating to the airing of a tape on Crime Watch in October 2011, showing the rape of a minor in Morvant.
Days after the tape was aired, police arrested several suspects and charged them with the alleged offence against the victim.
Fast-forward to April last year and Alleyne was slapped with four charges, one of resisting arrest and three under the Sexual Offences Act. CCN TV6 also faced three charges under the Sexual Offences Act in relation to the incident. Crime Watch was also temporarily taken off the air.
As Alleyne was being taken from Express House, a number of passers-by gathered and shouted at the police in defence of the popular media personality. That public support continued throughout for Alleyne, including a candlelight vigil on Brian Lara Promenade to protest his arrest and visits to the hospital; the night he was arrested Alleyne was taken to Port of Spain General Hospital after complaining of chest pains while at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).
When he received bail in the sum of $80,000 Alleyne led a group of jubilant supporters from Port of Spain Magistrates' Court to Express House. He has subsequently returned to hosting Crime Watch and the case is ongoing.
CRIME REPORTER CHARGED
In May 2012, there was another dark cloud for CCN with the most twisted of ironies—a crime reporter charged with a crime. Then-Express crime reporter Akile Simon was charged with robbing K&A Liquor Mart in Arouca of more than $300,000 together with then-TV6 cameraman Brendon Alexander, a security officer, Marlie Charles, and taxi-driver Randy Borris. For the incident and the court case the Express had the unhappy task of reporting on its own employee.
In July, while out on bail, Simon found himself in more hot water after he was arrested in El Socorro allegedly with a firearm and 13 live rounds of ammunition in his possession. The former crime reporter is also facing a series of charges relating to another robbery at the home of Justin Maharaj at Eastern Main Road, Arima, on March 17, 2012, and stealing a safe containing TT$120,000, US$38,000, £5,000, Can$500, and $90,000 worth of gold jewellery, while impersonating a police officer. Simon's cases are before the Arima Magistrates' Court and Tunapuna Magistrates' Court.
Cable News Channel 3 (CNC3) had its own public court case in 2012 as head of news Rosemarie Sant, reporter Khamal Georges and managing director of parent company Guardian Media Ltd (GML) Gabriel Faria faced contempt of court proceedings. The three, in November 2011, accepted responsibility for the airing of footage which had the potential to prejudice the outcome of a trial which was being heard before High Court judge Prakash Moosai in July that year.
On trial was Laventille resident Barry Alphonso, who was subsequently found not guilty by a nine-member jury of illegally having arms and ammunition in his possession.
In March, at the First Criminal Court in Port of Spain, Moosai ordered that GML be fined $50,000, for which Sant and Georges accepted liability. The two were reprimanded and discharged and they, together with the company, were ordered to pay legal costs to Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard SC, who led the prosecution of the contempt charge and had called on the judge to deal severely with the trio.
Moosai, in his ruling, described the contempt as serious but noted there was no suggestion that it was intentional or that the editor was reckless or indifferent to the consequences or broadcasting the material. He also accepted Sant's evidence that there was an elaborate system in place to guard against such occurrences but the system failed due to human error. Moosai had also taken into consideration the fact that Sant and Georges were first-time offenders who had thrown themselves at the mercy of the court at the earliest opportunity.
In October, Communications Minister Jamal Mohammed came under fire for attacking TV6 and the Express in an e-mail, which he had described as a personal and private opinion. He had sent a private and confidential e-mail to TV6 head of news
Dominic Kalipersad, which he said he was writing, not as Communications Minister, but as an "insignificant Muslim coolie from San Juan".
In the e-mail, Mohammed accused TV6 and the Express of being in cahoots with the Opposition People's National Movement (PNM) in an attempt to destabilise the People's Partnership Government through biased reporting. Prior to that incident, the minister had also sent an e-mail to an Express journalist taking issue with an article, claiming that it was taken out of context and resulted in his doctors calling him "to find out if I have thoughts of committing suicide".
Kalipersad said that while Government members have every right to criticise the media, the minister had "erred in thinking he could divorce his personal and professional capacities in despatching such accusations".
"I am tempted to forgive his clear inexperience in this matter. But, I am also wary that he may be cleverly attempting to exercise influence on the media while hoping that his views would not be subjected to public scrutiny," he said.
Veteran journalist Sunity Maharaj described the letter as "puerile, ill-advised and unworthy of a Minister of Government".
Executive director of the IPI, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, described the incident as "highly troubling".
"For the Communications Minister to engage in this kind of direct intimidation of the media is highly troubling and, unfortunately, indicative of a recent pattern of abuse by Trinidadian Government officials against the press," the IPI stated in a report on its website that month.
Referencing the incident, the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) had called on Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to clearly state the Government's intent on the media and press freedom.
"Within recent times the media have been plagued and bombarded with allegations and inferences that have been conveyed in a manner that suggests freedom of the press may soon be a licensed privilege rather than a pillar of our democracy," the Association stated.
Responding to the IPI criticism, Mohammed described it as a "storm in a tea cup". He had earlier apologised for the letter, saying he did not know that he could not divide his personal and professional portfolios.
Questioned whether his private e-mails and the criticisms levelled will further deteriorate relations between Government and media, Mohammed said: "I believe that media in Trinidad and Tobago have the full support and cooperation of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. We view freedom of the press and press freedom as a very important aspect of our development here in Trinidad and Tobago and your best friend in Government is the Minister of Communications."
Mohammed also announced a meeting with the TTPBA. That month, the Communication Minister also came under fire from international press freedom organisation, Reporters Without Borders, for his announcement that all privately-owned broadcasters would be required to carry up to five minutes of Government messages every hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. for no compensation.
"Such a measure is not in accordance with the requirements of pluralism. Its implementation would create the conditions for a media war and there is still time to stop this," the group had said.
In September, National Security Minister Jack Warner, who is also UNC chairman, while appearing on a party-funded television programme titled Democracy is Alive, said he was noticing a "most deceitful" trend where media reporters used their position to "push an agenda" and where the media were "compliant" with the Opposition PNM.
During the programme, Warner held up a copy of the Sunday Express of September 23 and pointed to two articles written by Express journalist Asha Javeed. He then went on to make comments about her.
He had also told the Express in a telephone interview that all media workers with "an axe to grind" against the Government should first be beyond reproach themselves.
"If you are going to attempt to expose people then be above reproach," Warner said.
Following condemnation that he had attacked the media, Warner, in a statement, said he never did and claimed Government supported a free press, but he was justifiably concerned about media bias.
The IPI, in an article, defended Javeed and Trinidad Guardian journalist Denyse Renne, who after writing about the proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act 2011 had become the subject of anonymous e-mails. IPI also commented on remarks made by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan
IPI deputy director Anthony Mills said: "While the personal attacks and allegations against Denyse Renne and Asha Javeed are unacceptable in any context, the fact that public officials are at the forefront of the abuse is particularly troubling. One critical responsibility of journalism is precisely to investigate the actions of elected governments, and public officials should remember that, in a democracy, the price of power is heightened scrutiny."
The AP Toussaint column