Opposition Leader wants Government to respect press freedom

KAMLA PERSAD-BISSESSAR SC MP, Opposition Leader and Political Leader of the United National Congress (UNC)

The Opposition Leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC MP, has expressed concern that freedom of the press is being compromised, during the current COVID-19 crisis in Trinidad and Tobago.

According to Mrs Persad-Bissessar, there are glaring issues in the way Government’s daily media conferences on the crisis are being conducted, chief of which is the apparent “bullying” of bona fide journalists, whose role is to keep the public informed, while certain social media bloggers who are sympathetic to the Government appear to be given special treatment.

The full text of the Opposition Leader’s statement, follows…

KAMLA CALLS ON GOVERNMENT TO PRESERVE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

I note with great concern the ongoing blatant and very dangerous attempts by the Government to stifle the traditional media of Trinidad and Tobago. This, as journalists from the daily newspapers, television and radio stations undertake to report on various issues of national public importance concerning the Coronavirus pandemic.

It is clearly a strategy employed by Cabinet Ministers to ensure that they avoid accounting to the public as to their overall handling of this crisis. The fact remains, however, that, as the historic Fourth Estate, the traditional media plays a very important role in defending our democracy. Reporters, photographers, cameramen/women, editors and all other media employees risk their health, safety and lives on a daily basis to inform the public as to the crucial issues affecting T&T at this troubling time.

So far, the media has highlighted:

  • The questionable and contradictory positions of the Government regarding the controversial issue of repatriating stranded citizens abroad
  • The very dangerous, unsanitary conditions of the quarantine facilities, including hospitals and private facilities, being used by Government to treat Covid-19 patients
  • The fact that citizens are now petrified to submit themselves for Covid testing due to very valid fears of ending up in these hellish facilities
  • The ongoing plight of the countless citizens who are suffering serious financial setbacks due to insufficient relief grants, and the overwhelming State bureaucracy in accessing them
  • The fact that quarantine facilities have essentially turned into jail sentences for patients, including children, which is a violation of citizens’ Constitutional rights
  • The use of taxpayers’ dollars to fund several questionable Government initiatives.

For this commendable national service, these valuable essential workers from media establishments are now being unfairly targeted in the following ways:

  • Senior Cabinet Ministers attack and bully reporters and editors for simply writing stories/editorials/columns or asking questions that are not to their liking.
  • Political operatives, reported to be on the State’s payroll, subject media practitioners to unbridled, unwarranted, merciless and very damaging personal and professional attacks on an almost daily basis via social media.
  • This is all a very blatant, dangerous attempt to intimidate and silence the media’s (and by extension, our country’s) Constitutional rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression
  • It also potentially puts media practitioners, and their families, under severe undue mental and emotional stress.
  • This is all ultimately tantamount to illegal harassment of citizens in the execution and performance of their jobs.

Now, it has worryingly gone a step further since:

  • Cabinet Ministers have now given these allegedly paid Government political propagandists unfettered access to their daily media conferences.
  • Here, the Ministers strategically stifle probing questions from journalists.
  • They instead use their alleged propaganda agents to nakedly push the Government’s questionable political agenda, under the guise of posing questions.

I wish to point out that:

  • All Government news conferences, along with every other State event, are wholly funded by taxpayers’ dollars.
  • Cabinet Ministers therefore have a duty to conduct them in a manner that represents the interests of ALL citizens.
  • To instead politicize these news conferences with the clear intention of destabilizing the media’s Constitutionally enshrined rights is therefore TOTALLY unacceptable.
  • It is also contrary to the public and national interest, violates our Constitutional tenets and poses a very serious threat to our democracy.

I therefore call on the Government to:

  • Immediately stop this dangerous practice of granting access to their political operatives who are paid by taxpayers’ dollars, to these public interest forums.
  • If they fail to do so, they must alternatively now allow ALL social media bloggers to have similar equal access to these news conferences, in the spirit of fairness and equality to all citizens.

I stand very confident that the population of T&T will endorse this call, for at the end of the day, it is our very democracy which is at stake.