Joint letter from Mrs. Alison Bethel McKenzie, IPI Executive Director and Mr. Wesley Gibbings, President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.
The Honourable Dr. Surujrattan Rambachan, MP
Member for Tabaquite
Minister of Local Government
Vienna, April 4, 2013
Dear Dr. Rambachan,
Thank you for your letter dated March 30, 2013 regarding our concern about recent comments from Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar attacking “rogue elements” in country’s media.”
Please be assured that IPI takes your opinions seriously. Let me first begin by saying that there is no doubt that Trinidad & Tobago enjoys greater press freedom than most island nations in the region, and we dare say, in many other parts of the world. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago guarantees freedom of thought, expression and of the press, as well as the right to express political views.
We believe elected officials should be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny by the media than ordinary citizens. This view is supported by numerous international bodies, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). While we encourage fair and balanced reporting, international standards hold that the private media are under no obligation to promote a particular political viewpoint.
While all citizens, including elected officials, have the right to freely express their thoughts, when governments publicly scold the media, or when top officials personally attack individual journalists or media houses – whether verbally or electronically, a message is sent to the public that harassment of the media is acceptable. In the worst case, this perception could lead to violence against journalists, as it has already in many parts of the world. This risk is heightened when particular sectors of the press are expressly depicted as political enemies, or worse, enemies of the state.
What is more, media houses or journalists that are constantly subjected to public attack may eventually decide to self-censor in order to avoid high-profile rebukes in the future. In declining to publish certain information or opinions, media self censorship would seriously harm the Trinidadian people’s ability to participate in the democratic process.
Dr. Rambachan, let us be clear: the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) along with member organizations, including the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago, do not take the view that the media is above the law. Promoting media responsibility is a core activity shared by us and our media partners, and we are quick to engage with media houses that we believe have not lived up to international best practices of professional journalism. But we also are quick to call out governments whose actions have stirred fear and self-censorship among the press.
Please also allow us to make one clarification regarding your letter. IPI does not have a local chapter in Trinidad and Tobago and Kiran Maharaj is not president of IPI in Trinidad or any other location. IPI, like ACM, has a number of individual members throughout the Caribbean, and a member of its executive board is from the region. In terms of the relationship between IPI and ACM, two years ago we signed a strategic partnership agreement that will further our cause in the Caribbean.
IPI and ACM work together with various media in Trinidad and across the Caribbean to promote independent, ethical reporting in the region. And as you are aware, we are working diligently with governments through the Caribbean to repeal criminal defamation, including in Trinidad and Tobago where we have gotten great support from the Prime Minister and the Attorney General. Thank you again for sharing your view. We trust that this letter will be the start of a fruitful dialogue between IPI, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers and the Trinidadian government. I hope that we have been able to address some of your concerns, and IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie looks forward to conversing with you during her visit to Trinidad later this month.
Alison Bethel McKenzie
International Press Institute
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Letter from Minister of Local Gov’t Dr. Surujrattan Rambachan to IPI
International Press Institute
I note with great concern your release about press freedom in Trinidad and the assertion that it is under threat. I wish to state categorically that press freedom is not under threat in Trinidad and Tobago and further that the freedom of the press is guaranteed under our Constitution. It will be important for me to understand from you what particular incidents suggest that press freedom is under threat. If I may, I will like to state the following.
In my country under the current administration of Mrs Kamla Persad Bissessar no journalist or media practitioner has been jailed, or threatened by the government for being such. On the other hand, if a member of the government feels that he/she has been unfairly treated by the media, then the laws of my country allows that member to seek legal redress. That is a right which should also be respected.
Within the past few months a number of press reports on members of government have gone unsubstantiated. In the most recent case of Member of Parliament Anil Roberts who is also Minister of Sports, the press reported that he was sent to the Integrity Commission. Despite the Integrity Commission refuting what the press said, there has been no retraction. Is it that the media should be given absolute freedom without responsibility for the truth?
In Trinidad and Tobago there are three daily newspapers., two weeklies and thirty seven radio stations. There are also five major TV stations. None of these have ever been shut down by this Government. All of these radio stations and TV stations carry very harsh and hard hitting talk shows which are often very critical and tough on the government. The rights of those who own the stations as well as of the talk show hosts and those who call into the stations have never been challenged.
Even the President of your local chapter in Trinidad Ms Kiran Maharaj is associated with a TV station and several radio stations, one of which 90.5 FM carries a talk show which at times is highly critical of the government. Further the TV station with which she is associated has at least two programs which at times contain material critical of the government. None of these stations have been attacked by the government. I use this example because it is one that can be easily proven given its nexus to the President of the local chapter of IPI. Of course I now run the risk of being described as attacking your President in Trinidad.
Whenever mention is made of the media by a politician, the first response is to say that the media is being attacked. Is it wrong to refute the media? What is it to attack the media? The media has not been stooped from publishing whatever it wants to publish no matter how defamatory it might be. That is a fact in Trinidad. Headlines are often not in sync with the stories and often lead to false judgements about the government or individual members of the government.
If it the right of the media to educate and inform, some say to publish then it also the right of those who are affected to respond. Please tell me what is so wrong with a Prime Minister asking for responsible journalism. What is wrong with asking for fairness from the media. One does not expect the media to be a propaganda machine for any Government but at the same time is it not fair that the media should also publish the achievements of the government, or is it only the dirty stuff that the media is interested in.
I believe that in accusing the Trinidad and Tobago Government of attacking the media, you have been unfair since there is insufficient evidence if any, to suggest that press freedom is under threat. That you have internationalized your report is an injustice to the government and people of this country who have always had a healthy respect for a free media. The damage having been done who is to repair it?
Minister of Local Government