Communication Minister Jamal Mohammed yesterday came under fire for attacking TV6 and the Express under the veil of a personal and private opinion.
Mohammed on Tuesday sent a private and confidential e-mail to TV6 Head of News Dominic Kalipersad, which he said he was writing not as Communication 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.
It is not the first time Mohammed has claimed biased reporting at TV6 and the Express. Last Saturday, Mohammed also e-mailed an Express journalist, in his private capacity, taking issue over an article which he believed was taken out of context, saying his doctors had called "to find out if I had thoughts of committing suicide".
Mohammed's personal e-mails to media members have sparked serious concern over his inability to differentiate between his personal and professional portfolios.
Kalipersad said Government members have every right to criticise the media.
"If the objective of the e-mail, however, was to point out alleged bias against the PP Government and perceived collusion with the Opposition PNM, what was the Minister's strategy in writing a letter of complaint to the head of a news operation under the cover of personal observation?" asked Kalipersad.
"Minister Mohammed, the Government spokesperson, as it were, as Minister of Communication, erred in thinking he could divorce his personal and professional capacities in dispatching such accusations. I am tempted to forgive his clear inexperience in these 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 added.
Express editor-in-chief, Omatie Lyder also wondered why Mohammed would think he could write "Private and confidential. Not for Publication" letters as the Minister of Communication, and questioned whether Mohammed needed help with understanding his portfolio.
"Ever so often, I get an earful from a government minister about how biased we are against the Government at the Express, and this latest letter to the TV6 Head of News by the Communication Minister is in the same vein. I have seen a letter he also wrote to one of our journalists, which makes me wonder if this particular minister needs help understanding his portfolio," she said.
"When the 2010 election campaign was in progress, the Express was accused of being in bed with the People's Partnership, now we are being accused of being against them. But we have a job to do and will continue to do it fearlessly. The mere fact that we seek other opinions for our stories shows that we strive for balance," she added.
President of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) Suzanne Shepherd said an official statement will be released soon.
She noted, however, that when the PNM was in government, it too alleged there was biased reporting by the Express and TV6.
"In all the years I've been in media, I've heard this allegation made so often. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role of the media. It seems as though politicians are happy as long as we operate as PR (public relations) agencies for them. The role of the media is to look at what politicians are doing, put the spotlight on them to ensure they are serving the people," she said.
Veteran journalist Sunity Maharaj was critical of Mohammed's e-mail, stating it was difficult to accept that it was sent by a minister of communication.
"Assuming, however, that it has been verified as having been sent by him, I cannot see how Minister Mohammed could expect to enjoy the right to anonymity and privacy in a matter in which he is clearly representing the responsibilities of his portfolio as well as the interest of the Government," she stated via e-mail.
"The letter is puerile, ill-advised and unworthy of a minister of government. I am sure that the Express and TV6 are more than equipped to defend themselves against his allegations. The question that remains, however, is whether the Government of Trinidad and Tobago can defend itself against the consequences of such actions by one in such high office," Maharaj added.
Patricia Worrell, former lecturer at the University of the West Indies School of Journalism, stated that Mohammed's actions were worrying.
"First, I want to express some surprise that the Minister thinks that he can speak as an insignificant individual at this point. His portfolio adds immediate weight to whatever pronouncements he makes on the media in T&T. To think otherwise suggests a somewhat disconcerting naivete about himself and his responsibilities," she stated via e-mail.
Worrell said it would be much more fruitful for Mohammed to attempt to establish some grounds for working productively with the media instead of indulging in some personal conspiracy theory.
"...I want to suggest that the Prime Minister and her Government (for whom Mr Mohammed speaks) should continue to be very careful to avoid acts which may appear to be attempts at browbeating any media organisations and their representatives," advised Worrell.
Former president of the Law Association Martin Daly stated that Mohammed seems to believe the mandate given to this Government by the people suspends freedom of the press and free speech.
"The reference to his origins reflects post-colonial insecurity and his own class bias against those he perceives to be part of an elite that does not understand what the average man on the Priority Bus Route is thinking. Note that he wants to keep his communication secret so it may influence you without his views being subjected to the free discussion that he says he supports. It is dreadful that this type of thinking is part of the official communications portfolio," stated Daly.
The Express tried to reach Mohammed yesterday, but several calls to his cellphone went unanswered.