MEDIA-CARIBBEAN: A Slap in the Face For Freedom of Expression?

Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 29 1998 (IPS) - Barbadian journalist, Julian Rogers has lost his battle against immigration authorities here amidst claims that the popular television broadcaster is being victimised by the Basdeo Panday administration.

Rogers has until Thursday to pack his bags at Caribbean Communications Network (CCN) — a Trinidad and Tobago media conglomerate which also has holdings in Grenada, St. Kitts, Jamaica and Dominica.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) and a number of other interest groups had been calling on the Ministry of National Security to deal favourably with an appeal by CCN for the extension of Rogers’ work permit which expires on Apr 30.

The highly publicised campaign reached Jamaica where the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) issued a scathing attack on the Panday administration. In Barbados, Attorney General David Simmonds expressed surprise at the turn of events.

But Tuesday, National Security Minister, Joseph Theodore chose the country’s 31-member nominated senate to announce that the CCN application had been turned down. The announcement was repeated on prime time television making use of mandatory free government space on the country’s three television stations.

“The Ministry is not aware that CCN is exempt from conditions and qualifications for a work permit under the Immigration Act,” Theodore said as he quoted from a letter delivered earlier to the media house. He also added that journalists “have no enemies in the government of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Panday also spoke on the issue to journalists. “As far as I am concerned, there is a law in this country which seeks to say that where locals are qualified they must have the first option to jobs that are going locally,” he said. “What is wrong with that?”

But Panday, who is reported to have complained to Rogers that telephone calls from ruling United National Congress (UNC) supporters were being “screened out” by Rogers on his programme, was hesitant to state whether he thought Rogers had been doing a good job at CCN.

He also dismissed the suggestion that the development could negatively affect the relationship between Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. He said he had spent a long time travelling and meeting with Barbados’ Prime Minister, Owen Arthur and “not a word” had been said about the matter.

“This is the first time I have seen unions and people saying that local jobs should not go to local people who are qualified,” he said. “The spirit of Caricom does not, in any way, abrogate the law that jobs in Trinidad and Tobago must go to Trinidadians and Tobagonians who are qualified.”

MATT, however, said the refusal of a work permit extension to Rogers represents another “slap in the face to freedom of expression.” Association President, Dale Enoch had said that the affair “reeks of political interference.”

Rogers himself said he thought “it might have been something I have done” though he refused to elaborate. But Theodore maintained that certain “media operatives” had been leading “a calculated campaign to mislead the public through the suppression and manipulation of information.”

“It is unfounded and unfair for certain media operatives to raise issues about alleged journalistic lapses of which Mr. Julian Rogers may have been guilty,” Theodore said. “Nothing of that nature actual or imagined had played any part in the entire process.”

MATT is meanwhile concerned about the implications of the move on a plan by the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) to initiate the free movement of media workers throughout the region. “The government’s decision represents another slap in the face of efforts at Caribbean integration,” the Association said.

However, Chief Executive Officer of CCN, Craig Reynald says Rogers is likely to remain in the Group albeit playing a different role. “Rogers will continue to work with us in the Caribbean as we are in the process of establishing television networks,” Reynald said.

“It is important that Julian as a broadcaster talent is not lost to the Caribbean,” he added.

MATT has also maintained that Rogers is the latest in a string of attacks on the press. Newspaper editor, Ken Ali has an appeal pending in the court related to his incarceration in 1996 over news reports about a high profile murder case.

At that time, the trial judge had ordered the local press to refrain from publishing any information about the jailing.

Panday has also featured in a number of verbal attacks against journalists, once branding CCN chairman, Ken Gordon, a “pseudo- racist” and calling for the firing of former newspaper editor, Jones Madeira. His impasse with Madeira’s newspaper, the Trinidad Guardian, eventually led to the mass resignation of the newspaper’s entire senior editorial staff.

Editorialising on the Rogers decision Wednesday, the Guardian said: “The very tone of the responses from the government on the issue from day one set the Panday administration some distance apart from what countless ordinary and interested parties across the region saw as the spirit of regional integration 25 years after the Declaration of Chaguaramas,” (the treaty establishing Caricom).

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