MEDIA-CARIBBEAN: Journalist’s Expulsion Stirs Up ‘Hornet’s Nest’

Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 28 1998 (IPS) - The imminent expulsion of a Barbadian journalist from Trinidad and Tobago is raising a “hornet’s nest” surrounding the country’s commitment to a seven year old Caribbean Community (Caricom) decision to allow the free movement of media workers in the region.

The Basdeo Panday administration has been hard-pressed to explain why Barbados-born journalist Julian Rogers is having trouble having his work permit renewed when liberal immigration policies are being applied in the oil and gas industries and a number of other sectors in the country.

Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj was even quoted from London last week as saying he planned to hire more British Queen’s Counsel to contest appeals on behalf of the state in the local Appeal Court.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) argues that the refusal by the Ministry of National Security to grant an extension was “against the spirit of (Caribbean) integration.”

Newly-elected President of the Association, broadcaster Dale Enoch even went so far as to say upon his installation Saturday that the matter “reeks of political interference.” Rogers has been attached to a local television station here for close to five years.

Though he has not said much on the issue himself, Rogers, in an unplanned address to MATT, said he believed his work permit problems were linked to his role as host of a popular and sometimes controversial television talk-show.

“It is obviously something I have done that has put me into focus,” he said while adding that he would have more to say on the matter when it reached a conclusion.

That conclusion can come as early as Thursday when the clock runs out on his current work permit.

MATT has been arguing that while the government has been speaking of the free movement of media workers throughout the region, it has not taken action to ensure that such a decision by Caricom countries was implemented.

The 1991 decision to facilitate the free movement of “skilled labour” in the region was followed in 1992 by legislation in Guyana which allows for the free movement of “media workers.”

Similar legislation is being introduced in Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Trinidad and Tobago passed its Caricom Skilled Nationals Act in 1996 but it is yet to be assented to, pending new immigration regulations.

Even so, the government has said that the initial focus of the law would be to facilitate the entry of Caricom university graduates. This is not yet in place.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Maraj however promises that free movement for university graduates will be in place in time for the 1998 Caricom Summit in St. Lucia.

The Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), Caribbean Association of Media Workers (CAMWORK) and the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce (CAIC) are among the groups that have come out in support of Rogers.

The CAIC, the leading private sector organisation in the region, says if the decision not to renew Rogers’ work permit is not reversed, “it will most certainly interfere with the excellent progress being experienced with the freedom of movement of professionals within Caricom.

“The error of judgment in making this decision is a setback that could unravel decades of progress achieved in building regional unity,” the CAIC said. “CAIC must pull out all stops to preserve what amounts to a central pillar of Caricom’s Single Market and Economy.”

Officials at the Caricom Secretariat in Guyana remained mum on the issue though Public Relations Officer Leonard Robertson was on radio last week confirming that the legal basis for the free movement of skills does not exist in a majority of Caricom countries.

Barbados’ Attorney General, David Simmons last week took diplomatic note of the turn of events and there is speculation that the issue may reach the St. Lucia Summit.

But, in a puzzling statement on the issue, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday said his country is taking the lead on the free movement issue by ensuring that the laws of the country apply.

He said the laws required that a post be advertised first for nationals then offered to non-nationals. “Are you saying that the law should not apply to the media?” he asked one journalist.

National Security Minister Joseph Theodore however maintains that the non-renewal of Rogers’ work permit was “not a Julian Rogers issue”.

“We have nothing personal against Mr Rogers as some people are trying to suggest,” he said. The government is having an uphill task convincing a sceptical public that this is indeed the case.

There have been reports that the Prime Minister had indicated his displeasure at the conduct of Rogers’ programme, on one occasion accusing the Barbadian broadcaster of screening out telephone calls from people sympathetic to the government.

Ruling party supporters have vocally been expressing their support for the move in numerous letters to the newspapers.

Since it came to office in 1995, the Panday administration has had a poor track record of relations with the press. In 1996, a newspaper editor was jailed for reportage of a high-profile murder case and news of his incarceration suppressed by the trial judge.

Panday has himself led attacks on senior journalists and, early in his term, called for a boycott of the Trinidad Guardian, the country’s oldest newspaper. The showdown with the newspaper led to the eventual resignation of the publication’s entire editorial management.

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