In Trinidad personal attacks on investigative journalists raise alarm
Denyse Renne of the Trinidad Guardian and Asha Javeed of the Trinidad Express have been the target of public accusations and criticism by leading members of the ruling United National Congress (UNC), particularly Minister of National Security Jack Warner, after reporting on a legal scandal that has rocked the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
In addition, the two journalists have reportedly been the subject of widely circulated e-mails hinting at allegations related to their private lives, a campaign that IPI and Trinidadian media groups believe is an attempt to instill fear and self-censorship. There is no indication as to the source of the e-mails, which have been described in the press as “nasty.”
Appearing on the television programme “Democracy is Alive” last Wednesday, Warner asserted that opposition leader Keith Rowley was “propped up by a section of a compliant media” and said of Javeed, "you know her history...where she lives and so on..." Warner repeated his assertions of the media's “deceitful” efforts to “push an agenda” in a subsequent interview with the Express.
On Sunday, Warner sought to defend himself in the face of a media outcry over his remarks, releasing a statement emphasising his support for press freedom but stating, “What I did was to expose what I rightfully considered the duplicitous and disingenuous behavior of one who works in the media and, in this particular case, the Express newspaper.”
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan last week also joined the fray, attacking what he viewed as the media's bias against the UNC government. "That kind of imbalance is something that calls for self-analysis and self-introspection by the media itself," he added, proceeding to call more responsibility on the part of the press.
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.”
He added: “We call upon Minister Jack Warner and anyone else to immediately cease this campaign of harassment and insinuation against the media.”
The scandal centres around the government's early proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proccedings) Act, which granted judges the power to dismiss a criminal matter if “it had languished in the court for more than ten years,” according to media reports. The expedited passage of Section 34 allowed two well-known businessmen and reported UNC donors, Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson, to petition for dismissal of decade-old fraud and conspiracy charges against them. The United States government is also seeking their extradition to face money laundering charges.
Following the media's investigation into the alleged political motives behind the move, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar called an extraodinary session of parliament to repeal Section 34 and later dismissed the country's justice minister, Herbert Volney. The opposition has continued to press for the resignation of Attorney General Ramlogan.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) condemned what it called a “smear campaign” against Renne and Javeed, and declared, “Personal attacks in response to news reports are not a valid or acceptable means of discrediting the information unearthed by journalists who are simply doing their job.”
MATT added: “If this trend is not rapidly checked, the association fears a trend of organised personal attacks against journalists will eventaully damage the ability of the media to report fearlessly, undermine the functioning of the media—which is fundamental to all democracies—and ultimately weaken the rights of citizens.”
This is not the first time that Jack Warner has tangled with the media. Earlier this year, IPI reported on Warner's threats to sue sports journalist Lasana Liburd for covering Warner's alleged embezzlement of FIFA aid money destined for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, charges that have led to calls for Warner's removal from the government.
In June, IPI held its World Congress in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago's capital, which closed with a commitment by Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to review the country's criminal defamation laws, a key target of IPI lobbying efforts.