Trinidad’s Section 34 controversy and journalists

Ever so often the toil of the conscientious journalist produces results which rattle the foundations of corrupt and twisted governance. Such was the case recently in Trinidad and Tobago where a report by Ms Denyse Renne of the Trinidad Guardian triggered a flurry of questions about the early proclamation of Section 34 of The Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act 2011. The early proclamation would have enabled the dropping of charges against, among others, two one-time senior United National Congress (UNC) financiers who were accused of fraudulently receiving large sums of money in questionable contracts for the Piarco Airport expansion project. The Lindquist report which had been commissioned into the Piarco scandal had unearthed a wide range of irregularities that ensnared other members of the UNC, the core of the ruling People’s Partnership.

After the initial newspaper report, questions naturally arose about whether the early proclamation of a small but seminal section of the Act was a quest by powerbrokers in the government to find a backdoor escape for these UNC financiers and their friends who have used all available options to avoid trial and extradition to the United States.

Why early proclamation of just this section? No rational answer could be found and the entire Trinidad establishment began trying to explain their individual actions or lack of them: from the President to the Prime Minister and everyone else in between. Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar then sacked Justice Minister Mr Hubert Volney for misleading Cabinet on who had been consulted on the early proclamation. It was a humbling experience for the political directorate and a triumph for the journalist and the media’s ability to focus the people’s attention on matters which reek of abuse of power and corruption.

And it isn’t over as yet. Pressure is building inexorably for the Attorney General Mr Anand Ramlogan to be sacked on the grounds that he had to be aware as the legal advisor to the government that the early proclamation was sinister. The pressure on the government has seen attacks on the Trinidadian media by Mr Ramlogan and particularly by National Security Minister Mr Jack Warner. The latter has singled out a particular journalist and made unacceptable remarks as a reflex to the scandal that the media has exposed. Mr Warner’s attacks on the media are gratuitous and unacceptable. They must be condemned in the strongest terms as they are meant to cow journalists and can affect their safety.

Responding to the attacks on journalists, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago had this to say: “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.

“There are various channels available, including legal ones, through which public figures may obtain redress if inaccurate information about them is carried in the media…

“The larger and more disturbing consequence is that such misguided campaigns against journalists may lead to self-censorship, which is corrosive to transparency in public life.

“The Media Association therefore calls on MPs and party officials to deter their followers, both in public and in private, from engaging in these unwarranted attacks on journalists.

“If this trend is not rapidly checked, the Association fears a trend of organised personal attacks against journalists will eventually 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 all citizens.”

Such attacks also create conditions in which the safety of journalists is compromised. When senior politicians recklessly pinpoint individual journalists simply for doing their work they transform them into targets for zealots.

It was ironic that the attacks by Mr Warner and others came in the same week that the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution affirming that journalist safety was a fundamental element of freedom of expression. The resolution sponsored by Austria called on all state parties to “promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently” and to fight impunity by ensuring “impartial, speedy and effective investigations” into acts of violence against journalists.

Among other things, the resolution “calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference including through (i) legislative measures, (ii) awareness-raising among  the judiciary, law enforcement officers and military personnel as well as journalists and civil society regarding international human rights and humanitarian law obligations and commitments relating to the safety of journalists, (iii) monitoring and reporting of attacks against journalists (iv) publicly condemning, as well as, (v) dedicating necessary resources to investigate and prosecute such attacks”.

A safe and enabling environment for journalists is completely undermined by politically motivated attacks of the type that Mr Warner has launched where the sole objective is to intimidate journalists who are exposing the excesses of government.

While such verbal onslaughts on the media are frequent in the Caribbean, and particularly during election campaigns, they must not be tolerated. All segments of society must speak out against these attacks and condemn those who promulgate them.

Guyanese journalists have been easy pickings for ruling party politicians. A year ago it was then President Bharrat Jagdeo who led the attacks against journalists who were referred to as vultures and carrion crows merely because they were exposing the wrongdoings of his administration. Many in his administration also followed suit. That behaviour is unacceptable.

Austria’s sponsoring of the resolution had been preceded by a ground-breaking Joint Declaration on Crimes Against Freedom of Expression spanning the United Nations and other agencies which requires state officials to desist from  statements that increase the vulnerability of journalists and others who are targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. It was launched on June 25th by Mr Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Ms Catalina Botero, OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; Ms Dunja Mijatovic, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media and Ms Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Trinidad and Tobago on the sidelines of the International Press Institute’s World Congress.

The key section and relevant to the Section 34 controversy is that “State officials should unequivocally condemn attacks committed in reprisal for the exercise of freedom of expression and should refrain from making statements that are likely to increase the vulnerability of those who are targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

The Ramotar administration should take careful note of the landmark resolution of the UN Human Rights Council and the declaration of the rapporteurs. It must commit to eschewing the venomous attacks of its predecessor on the media which created insalubrious conditions for journalists.

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