There’s a lot of press freedom in T&T! That’s the pronouncement of Allison Bethel-Mckenzie head of the International Press Institute. Bethel-Mckenzie had the last word on T&T’s much debated press freedom status hours before she left T&T on Thursday, just ahead of today’s World Press Freedom Day. This year’s theme is “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.”
Bethel-Mckenzie was in T&T this week holding talks with the Government on a range of press freedom issues. This culminated with Wednesday’s joint press conference involving Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, heads of the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters’ Association (TTPBA) and Association of Caribbean Media (ACM), concerning the Government’s move to drop criminal libel from the law books, thereby further enhancing T&T’s press freedom. In synch with the WPF’s 2013 theme, Persad-Bissessar yesterday took a note to Cabinet to amend the Libel and Defamation Act. The change will prevent any journalist from being criminally charged and prosecuted under Section 9 of the act for malicious publication of any defamatory libel.
It also contains safeguards for citizens, who will still have legal cover, via Section 8 of the law, to protect themselves against malicious libel when information known to be wrong is printed. TTPBA president Kiran Maharaj on Wednesday said there had been speculation in recent times about “stormy weather” for the media, but said “the sunlight has peeped through.” Maharaj said there are still major concerns which the TTPBA and partners are dealing with the Government on. “The genesis of where we are today is proof we can get it done,” she had added.
After Wednesday’s function, Bethel-Mckenzie was asked her view of T&T’s level of press freedom. She said: “The media here is very vibrant. I think there’s a lot of press freedom in T&T.” “We have some things, some concerns that we can work on, but they’re not insurmountable,” Bethel-Mckenzie added. She agreed with the perception that the Government’s move to amend the criminal libel law, thereby further enhancing press freedom—even at a time when it was faced with challenges and some criticism about being less than press friendly—confirmed the administration’s commitment to a free press.
Persad-Bissessar, listing at length T&T’s media on Wednesday, said: “When you consider this flourishing media environment in a country with a population of a mere 1.3 million, we may very well be among the top in the world on a per capita basis for development and expansion of the press and media. “This is a remarkable accomplishment, since in many small countries and even some here in the Caribbean, there is not even one established daily newspaper,” she added. Persad-Bissessar said there had never been any attempt by any T&T government to interfere with the constitutionally enshrined right of press freedom.
In her discourse, the PM noted the large number of media houses in T&T, saying there was no policy by her Government to set boundaries on media ownership, or to squeeze media houses out of state advertising when those entities wrote unfavourable stories about the Government. TTPBA’s Maharaj said there was no evidence that media houses which print stories that are not pleasing to Government do not get state advertising. Maharaj said that perception has existed with every government, but there is no conclusive evidence that media houses are being “squeezed” out of state advertising. Maharaj said if the issue was raised by members it will be addressed and the TTPBA felt comfortable to raise it.
ACM’s Wesley Gibbings, who said state advertising is often used as a means of either rewarding or punishing some media houses, also said there was no evidence of this in T&T, but noted ACM had mediated in cases in Guayana and the Cayman Islands on such issues.
Both the PM and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan cited the large number of local media houses, saying decisions on ads were based on ministerial budgetary constraints.
Asked about criticism by some ministers of the media, Persad-Bissessar said there was no policy that government ministers could criticise the media. She said there might, however, be personal expression. The PM, speaking about the media in general before she was asked that question, had said: “Robust discussions, even disagreement, criticism and consensus, are the blood that flows through the veins of the free media, it must never be mistaken as an attack on press freedom but reflection and manifestation of a free press.”
Ramlogan said whistle-blower legislation to protect journalists and other sectors was in the offing as well in continuing discussions on the Data Protection Act. Gibbings added: “The road to a truly free press is a long and winding road and it has to be engaged incrementally. Certainly, whistle-blower legislation needs to be put in place. One of the more urgent concerns, the Data Protection Act, may pose a threat to the identification of sources of stories and that also needs to be addressed.” Gibbings said a slew of legislation needs to be implemented to have the conditions through which press freedom exists, “… as it’s not only a function of what is in place.” “What needs to also be in place is an environment among the wider population that fosters freedom of expression. We don’t have the most extreme threats that are being faced (in other places),” he said.
“Journalists aren’t being killed here, but there are many stories that die and we need to focus on those stories that die and why they are dying though journalists are healthy.”
He said stories were “dying” not only because of existing legislation, “…but you can have an environment both from the point of view of those who are governed and from the point of those who govern. It’s an obligation for all of us”. Bethel-Mckenzie said: “Sometimes these things have to be done incrementally, no government will address everything.”
Persad-Bissessar added: “There will be many things that need to change and there may be many things we need to do, as long as we live there will always be more to do, but I believe what we’ve done today on removing the criminal libel/defamation aspect is a major step in creating the type of media we’d like to have, a very robust press in T&T.”
The state of the local media industry indicates the need for continued dialogue and resolution on various matters, says the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters’ Association (TTPBA). TTPBA head Kiran Maharaj said issues still to be sorted out with partners and Government include the Data Protection Act; government air time and the question of its necessity and relevance in the current media environment.
Also incomplete is the Digital Television Transition code and the possible threat to local TV broadcasters if a definitive transition plan and business model are improperly implemented. Work on a broadcast code and continued improvements in the art of journalism through training and development programmes are still ongoing also. “Although the issues mentioned are not an exhaustive list, these are the major ongoing concerns in our industry, which the TTPBA has been feverishly addressing,” she said. Maharaj also expressed the TTPBA’s appreciation to the Government for keeping its promise of a year ago with respect to the Libel and Defamation Act. She’d added: “TTPBA hopes that this is a sign of many good things to come.”
Maharaj said World Press Freedom Day “serves as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.” She added: “Despite the daily challenges and seeming foray of faux pas within recent times, we’re proud to serve our public.” On another level, ACM’s Gibbings said the Media Association of T&T has “very serious organisational issues” and has not been able to play the role it ought to be playing in the way it should.
Describing MATT as ”dysfunctional,” he said the ACM was there to pick up the slack. In response to this yesterday, MATT head Suzanne Sheppard said: “MATT does have issues, mainly stemming from the fact that only a handful of people actually get involved in the association. We need more media workers to come forward and offer their services for the executive. “At MATT’s last AGM in March we managed to have a quorum, but not enough people were prepared to run for positions on the executive, so we have to defer the elections.” She added: “While people look to MATT when a serious issue arises that impacts on the profession, many don’t see themselves as really being part of MATT. This is a problem we have faced for most of the association’s existence. Only a handful turn out for meetings and other activities, unfortunately.”
Eight TV broadcasting stations.
One TV broadcast service via cable
Nine subscription TV broadcasters
37 FM radio broadcasters, some companies owning more than one radio station
1 AM radio broadcaster
Three national daily newspapers
Ten weekly and speciality newspapers
One Tobago newspaper
Two landline providers
7 Internet providers
Burgeoning social media and strongly growing cyber community
Growing number of radio and TV talk shows.