2770371

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has written a letter to Minister of Communication Donna Cox, about the virtual press briefings where an update is given on COVID-19. In recent times, reporters have expressed concern about access to the briefings as well as the participation of non-journalists in the virtual briefings.

Here is the letter in full below:

MATT’s letter to Minister Cox

Along with media houses world-wide and across the region, reporters working on the frontline in Trinidad and Tobago are facing challenges covering the catastrophic

COVID-19 health emergency. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and health threats are new obstacles that journalists now navigate to secure information in the

public interest.

Secure human health, as articulated by the United Nations (March 19, 2020) depends not only on readily accessible health care.

It also depends on clear, accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means by which individuals can protect themselves, their families and communities.

Against this background, the government’s daily press briefings are a vital channel through which health information is disseminated.

We fully support the efforts of public health professionals and governments to develop and implement strategies to protect human health and life. In fact, under human rights law Governments everywhere are obligated to provide reliable information on these matters in accessible formats to all (UN).

Problems

Since the introduction of the virtual news briefings, our members have encountered several issues that interfere with their duty to transmit clear, comprehensible

information to an anxious public.

These include:

1. Muting of microphones. This (a) prevents follow-up questions and requests for clarification (b) allows speakers to leave questions unanswered (c) allows

speakers to deflect questions (d) allows speakers to be repetitive and longwinded in an already compressed time-frame (e) allows speakers to take questions directed at others

2. Non-selection of journalists. (a) Some journalists have complained they waited several days to be selected to pose questions (b) Journalists are uncertain if they will be selected at all and when

3. Accreditation criteria. The criteria for including journalists in the formal news media pool remains unclear. The pool has grown densely populated, adding to

the problems identified above. The recent appearance of recognised, politically partisan activists at the forum and the request by others for accreditation make clarity about accreditation criteria imperative. The introduction of politically-aligned Facebook and radio commentators brings a higher level of politicisation to a briefing that should remain a space where clear, factual information about the pandemic is proffered, interrogated and transmitted to the public.

MATT observes that, in addition to health updates, the briefing has become the key channel for information on other areas of government, especially as Parliament is

currently on a “pandemic break” and other normal avenues for public enquiries on governance are not available.

The briefing, we note, have also come to include (a) political responses to opposition voices (b) the “correcting” of opinions expressed in newspaper editorials (c) a Q&A

with the public.

The congestion of persons, questions and information at this single, one-hour daily news briefing is fast diminishing the capacity of the briefing’s focus to transmit

critical COVID-19 health information to a public that is hunkered down in their homes, anxious for information to guide their families’ daily lives and futures.

Recommendations

MATT submits the following recommendations that we anticipate will help satisfy the public need for relevant information while easing the congestion of questions

and persons at the news briefing.

1. While Ministers of Education, Labour and National Security have been in attendance on occasion, information on the policies and actions in other key

areas of governance remains largely void. These areas include, inter alia, energy, trade, agriculture and fisheries, works, women and children, public utilities.

Given the wide range of subjects on which the public is calling for information and the numerous segments of the population to serve—including the differently abled,

the elderly and those without access to the internet—MATT recommends that the information sessions increase to include:

(a) Specific COVID-19 health updates for full-time journalists and those freelancers whose main professional activity is journalism. This briefing should be 90 minutes long.

(b) Separate sessions for bloggers and assorted online non-news media personnel

(c) Sessions with Members of Parliament

(d) Regular Q&A sessions with the public

2. Sectors of the society with sector-specific queries, e.g. labour, agriculture, energy, finance etc. can be accommodated in separate sessions where representatives of those sectors can address their questions directly to relevant Government representatives.

3. Greater use of news releases for counter-arguments, rebuttals, political fisticuffs etc.

MATT remains available to assist in the free flow of adequate information to the public during this COVID-19 national health emergency.