Journalism is not a profession for the thin skinned or the faint of heart. This is something that’s reinforced to journalists in training and young journalists often because the presence of these two traits can render any member of the Fourth Estate impotent.
Today the newspapers of Trinidad and Tobago are dominated with the disclosure yesterday by that country’s Opposition Leader Keith Rowley of certain emails, supposedly exchanged by members of the government and their operatives, that if proven to be accurate must represent a sad day in the twin-island republic.
More importantly, however, if the emails are in fact authentic then they must be of concern to journalists all over the region, particularly because the Trinidad press is considered to be CARICOM’s most robust, operating in an environment that is more conducive to the good practice than in any neighbouring territory.
Our concern is sparked specifically by one of those email series disclosed by Rowley while introducing a no-confidence motion in Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, in which the authors spoke about using influence to block the publication of an article they feared held them in a bad light, and when that failed discussed smearing the reporters name and possibly doing her physical harm.
The series begins with the “attorney general … asking help from Captain Griffith to stop a story”. The September 8 email stated: “There is an article from the Guardian that a reporter from the Guardian called me involving our boys. I need you to get your feelers out there and nip the story.”
When, however, the Guardian the following day published a story Piarco airport cases to be dropped, an email from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com asked: “What is going on? Did you see the article? I thought you had friends in the Guardian. How could this happen?”.
When Guardian reporter Denyse Renne wrote another story, however, an email between the parties stated: “Spoke with the PM and she is furious about the article. What about the reporter? Tag her as well”.
Anan replied: “That f… whore don’t have f.. on me. More than likely she called Thomas at the Embassy. Do a trace on her. Every reporter has skeletons in their closet, and post it to our Facebook people. Find out how the f… she quoted from something (Lewis’ opinion) that she has no access to. I want this by this evening and I want to know who is her source?”
On September 10, two days after the email series began, Rowley told the T&T parliament an email purported to have come from firstname.lastname@example.org read: “The US contacted me and are f… angry. I thought you had a hold on this. This will cause major backlash. They even threatened to blacklist us. Come up with a plan, AG”.
One day later email@example.com writing to firstname.lastname@example.org, said of Renne: “Something is not right with that bitch. She knows too much. Did you find out her source? I was the only one who had this and she does not know Lewis. She does not know any QC. That I found out from her court colleague. She quoted things and asking questions to lawyers that no one knows. Did you find out anything over how things are at the DPP?”
The response to this e-mail was: “She (the reporter) has a file. It is really touch and go. She was in Florida at an institution in 2003, attempted suicide. Her family are PNM. Dad was in jail and recently released. Also added some stuff and sent it to facebook, they will take it from there”.
The thread continues, according to Rowley and the language got more threatening, even enquiring whether she walks or drives. Bear in mind that this is supposedly taking place in Trinidad, the CARICOM country with the most facilitating defamation laws and one of just a few with a Freedom of Information Act that works, and a media support organisation that works. Trinidadian journalists are often recognised for the quality of their investigative journalism.
What the latest Trinidad scandal shows, however, is that public applause does not mean that media practitioners don’t continue to suffer a heavy backlash for their efforts at preserving democracy. In Barbados we have had a few dramatic public skirmishes between journalists and public officials, political and otherwise, but we know of no “documented” evidence of threats or instructions to do harm to the writers.
But we are not too blind to disregard the damage that can be done and has been done by a simple telephone call, the withdrawal of advertising, the comments in public fora that are clearly designed to send a message of intimidation. On the other side of the coin, you have ignorant (and we use this in its purest, rather than Bajan, sense) members of the public who insist that the only thing standing in the way of robust investigative journalism is lazy journalists.
Laws that would facilitate genuine activism in journalism need to be put in place in Barbados, but as these Trinidad email disclosures are indicating, the commitment to achieving this goal rests on a lot more than the shoulders of the media practitioners. It certainly can’t be a case of “Good journalism!” when your enemy is the subject, but “Get him (or her) at any cost!” when it points to you.
All fair-minded Caribbean people — journalist and non-journalist — would be wise to follow this unfolding Trinidad story to its end. Preserving freedom in your neck of the woods may be highly influenced by your awareness of all the ramifications of this Trinidad soap opera.