Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Govt. Meddling Sends Media Managers Packing

George John

PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 2 1996 (IPS) - The Trinidad Guardian newspaper is awash with resignations as the controversy between the paper and the government continues.

Alwin Chow, managing director of the 79 year old paper, the oldest in the country, walked off the job late Monday after an emotional farewell in the newsroom. Chow, 47, an accountant and former senator in the National Parliament, claimed he had been “constructively dismissed” by the majority shareholders Ansa McAL.

But in a counter statement, the company chairman, Michael Mansoor, told the staff that Chow had offered his resignation three times in the last two weeks and the third offer was accepted.

In the fallout of the Chow departure, editor in chief Jones P. Madeira and the Sunday Editor Pat Ganase indicated their intention to resign while letters of resignation came from the Editor of the daily newspaper, the news editor, the features editor and one or two other senior staffers.

At the end of January Prime Minister Basdeo Panday had called for a boycott of the Guardian because of what he claimed to be unfair reporting. He barred Cabinet Minsters from speaking to Guardian reporters, called on the newspaper’s employees to petition its owners to send Madeira home, and branded the editor in chief “a vicious racist” and “spiteful”.

The Panday statement drew a storm of public criticism. Editorials in all three dailies as well as columnists, letter writers and other commentators all condemned Panday for his remarks and the Prime Minsiter was booed when he attended one of the Carnival events.

The boycott was later called off. But Panday and Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj stepped up the chorus of criticism, Maharaj saying the government would set up a Press Complaints Authority with coercive powers.

Panday subsequently met with leaders of the Media Association, a group of working journalists, and with a delegation from The Caribbean media. He told them that the principle of freedom of the press as understood by the media in Trinidad and Tobago posed a serious threat to the government which also had the right to its freedom of expression.

Both freedom of the press and freedom of expression are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights accompanying the country’s Constitution.

Panday asked: “Does freedom of the press include the right to publish lies, half truths and innuendos?”

Arising from his comments the Guardian and its competitor the Express agreed to set up separate internal self-regulatory authorities with guaranteed independence by May.

But Chow’s departure and the spate of resignations following it have left the newspaper in a delicate position.

There has been a history of conflict between Chow and the board of Ansa McAl, a conglomerate of some 40 companies in the Caribbean and the United States with business interests ranging from life insurance to construction and beer manufacturing.

The board appears to believe he has been something of a loose canon, a situation which has been going on for some three years now and which has just come to boil with the stance taken by the four month old United National Congress government.

The board believes that what is published in the Guardian can have an effect on the performance of the group. It has a number of business programmes which need the blessing of the government and a recalcitrant Guardian could have an effect on relations between the government and the group.

In the meantime the Guardian’s acting managing director is Grenfell Kinsoon, the managing director of Radio Trinidad. The two companies have been merged, according to an announcement made on the weekend.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing at the television arm of the state- owned International Communications Network (ICN).

Newsroom staffers sent a letter to the chief executive of the station expressing alarm at the appointment of Gideon Hanomansingh to the multiple posts of news producer and presenter and moderator of the current affairs programme “Issues Live.”

Hanomansingh sat in Parliament as a UNC member of the House of Representatives but was not selected as a candidate for re- election in the general polls last November.

In their letter, the staffers said his appointment was “completely against the tradition of the newsroom.”

The workers expressed alarm that the board of directors had set an agenda for the “Issues Live” programme for the next nine weeks complete with ministers to appear, and had determined that other panel members should be selected by the chief executive officer in consultation with the chairman of the company.

The employees saw the appointment developing to the point where the news fare would have the complete stamp of government information coming from someone who was until quite recently a parliamentarian of the ruling UNC and had been acting as an interviewer in several government programmes produced the Ministry of Information.

They urged the board to look again at what they described as the effective taking away of basic editorial judgement from the news and current affairs department.

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