Trinidad and Tobago’s improved World Press Freedom ranking by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF or Reporters Without Borders) is a good international look for T&T, but does not tell the full story of media freedom in this twin-island Republic.
In recognition of World Press Freedom Day today, the RSF’s rankings show T&T moving up six points from 31 to 25 out of 180 countries. The RSF described T&T as a “parliamentary democracy with a vibrant media landscape and civil society,” where freedom of the press is a constitutionally guaranteed and widely respected right.
T&T is certainly not among the worst countries for press restrictions and attacks on the media.
Media practitioners are largely free to practise without restraint, though bound by the laws of defamation and libel that protect those against whom reckless reporting is undertaken.
Infringements have been tested many times before in the courts, with some of the most challenging times in recent memory coming under the Basdeo Panday regime, when media workers faced harsh attacks from politicians that sometimes transcended into physical abuse at political meetings and other public events.
But while the climate today is much different, it isn’t as rosy as the RSF ranking makes it out to be.
In fact, the Dr Keith Rowley administration has overseen significant restrictions in the freedoms and privileges the media enjoyed a few years ago.
For example, the post-Cabinet media conferences that were held regularly after weekly Cabinet meetings have all but vanished under this Government. Apart from giving media personnel regular opportunities to question the Government on relevant matters, the live broadcasts of these conferences also gave the public opportunities to gauge for themselves, the degree of accountability and transparency exhibited by ministers when called to account on tough issues.
In addition, the Government’s stance in January to restrict some media entities from attending news conferences at the Diplomatic Centre, was viewed as a move to stifle some journalists whose legitimate lines of questioning were seen as unpalatable, prompting the Media Association to demand clearer criteria for access by media professionals to government officials.
Prime Minister Rowley, however, maintained a position that his Government “will preserve the prerogative of the Prime Minister’s Office to invite mainstream media to Prime Minister’s press conferences,” when he addressed media members at a party gala soon after.
Under this regime too, official channels of important communication have shifted significantly from media releases to posts on Facebook pages, the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Finance being among the chief culprits.
And there have been some more overt attempts to trample on media freedoms.
Just weeks ago, this media house was forced to push back when one ministry sought to stop one of our senior journalists from attending an online news conference hosted by the minister.
The only justification given was that the ministry was not comfortable with the journalist’s reporting on its affairs.
Today, as we join other media practitioners in recognising the importance of media freedom around the world, we sound a strong warning against attempts to diminish official access by media personnel in legitimate pursuit of the public’s interest and urge the Government to reflect on what it can do better to enhance this democratic freedom that we hold so dear.