Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEDIA-CARIBBEAN: Threat to the Free Press?

Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 30 1999 (IPS) - It might be sheer coincidence, but the revamping of the country’s Film Censors’ Board (FCB) and the consolidation of the state’s electronic media resources are coming at a time when the political directorate is expressing concern about sex and violence in the media and when its detractors are saying they fear checks on the free press.

A new board for the recently-constituted National Broadcasting Network (NBN) was sworn in Thursday while a yet unnamed group of persons is to lead the FCB into a more vigilant mode.

NBN brings together the resources of two state-owned television stations and the electronic media arm of the government’s Ministry of Information. Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) and its radio affiliate are operated along commercial lines.

Prime Minister Basdeo Panday pronounced on the NBN initiative last weekend when he said the mandate of the new organisation would be to “focus on heroes instead of criminals”.

“The NBN must have a purpose that distinguishes it from all other media houses whose primary objective is the bottom line on their profit and loss account,” the Prime Minister said.

He accused the private media of promoting too much “blood and gore that decorate our television screens and pollutes our airwaves”.

His political detractors have already sounded warning signals, with Opposition Leader Patrick Manning saying that news and current affairs coverage will be adversely affected by the new mandate.

“The Prime Minister is saying that TTT is not going to be free and that it is clear that the government is going to intervene and … dictate what TTT shows as news and what TTT does not show,” Manning said.

“It is no longer speculation,” he added. “You now know for sure that it is the government’s intention … such an intention flies in the face of the guaranteed rights and freedoms in Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution; in particular, freedom of the media.”

The Panday administration and the media have been at loggerheads almost from day one over free press issues.

Last November, a Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT)- organised march attracted thousands of demonstrators in a show of solidarity over what they said were threats to the free press.

The march was precipitated by an attack on journalists during a rally hosted by the ruling United National Congress (UNC) and speakers at the November march spoke of what they described as consistent attacks on the free press by the government since it came into office in 1995.

But not all detractors on this issue disagree entirely with the NBN move. Spokesperson for the Teleproduction Association of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT), Danielle Dieffenthaller praises what she sees as an attempt to mandate NBN to promote the production of more local programmes.

The TATT was signatory to a 1997 Declaration in which four media- related organisations called on the government to pay more attention to free press issues.

Last December, a MATT-hosted symposium urged the government to endorse the Declaration of Chapultepec adopted by a hemisphere conference on free speech held in Mexico City in 1994.

Panday said last year he had no intention of endorsing the Declaration until it repudiated the “untrammelled right of the press to publish anything it wants”.

MATT Vice-President Nicole Duke-Westfield says she is suspicious of the government’s “good news” policy for NBN saying that the media had an obligation to “let the public know everything that is going on in their country.”

She said that in reporting the reality of the current situation, “there will be good news and there will be bad news”.

But Information Minister Rupert Griffith, hardly makes the distinction between the move to establish the NBN and the revamping of the Censors’ Board.

“Censoring films (is) very critical and deals with the morality of the country,” he told reporters earlier this week.

Former FCB chairman, Joseanne Leonard, was said to have had frequent fights with fellow Board members and the Minister over administrative matters. But IPS understands the previous Board had begun moving away from overt censorship and had begun concentrating on developing an appropriate ratings system.

“There’s a lot of talk about morality … the kinds of stuff that’s coming out in the media and that Board has a very critical role to play in terms of censoring films,” he said.

There have been hints that the issue will gain broader currency within the next few days and Panday says he expects a regional backlash following an address at Friday’s opening session of a Caribbean media conference here. Few are expecting an about-turn from him on the issue of the media.

Media proprietors, journalists and editors meet in Port of Spain from Apr 30 to May 2.

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