PORT OF SPAIN –– The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned recent threats against Trinidad and Tobago journalist Mark Bassant that led to the reporter leaving the country last week in fear for his life.
“We condemn the threats made against Mr Bassant, which have highlighted the dangers that journalists face when attempting to reveal information that is in the public interest, even in a country like Trinidad and Tobago, where this form of harassment is unusual,” IPI Press freedom manager Barbara Trionfi said in a statement.
“We urge the authorities to fully investigate these threats and bring the perpetrators to justice, thereby ensuring that Press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago is upheld and that courageous journalists, like Mr Bassant, can carry out their work.”
Bassant, a senior investigative journalist with the Caribbean Communication Network (CCN) TV6, said he had received the threats while working on sensitive investigative material and that both Minister of National Security Gary Griffith and Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams had been made aware of the hit.
The Trinidad Express newspaper, a sister company of the television station, reported that “key underworld criminals” had made the death threat against Bassant.
Bassant told the newspaper that on May 7 “I got a call from a very reliable underworld source that certain criminal elements wanted to harm me because of stories I wrote recently that were showing them up”.
He continued: “I made a report on it. The next day I was liaising with certain police officers involved in a specific investigation, only to later learn from other trusted sources that these same officers who I had spoken to earlier were leaking information about me and what I knew to the said individuals who organized for my demise.
“I informed a high-ranking intelligence source, along with another trusted senior intelligence officer, about this development,” Bassant said.
“The senior intelligence office later conferred to me in a face-to-face meeting on May 9 that my name was on a hit list together with other persons. In fact, he told me that they had already been given the order to engage the targets, including me, and that the hit against me was starting at TT$20,000,” Bassant explained.
The IPI said it was urging the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago to take immediate steps to ensure that Bassant and other journalists could cover important developments in the country without fear of retaliation. The IPI’s regional partner, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), also shared its alarm concerning the Bassant case.
“The ACM continues to be very concerned about Mark’s safety and well-being,” said Wesley Gibbings, ACM’s general secretary.
“We hope that state security has accorded this high priority and that the perpetrators are brought to justice within a short space of time. We also call on all sectors of civil society to stand up in defence of Press freedom and for the value of the work of journalists throughout the Caribbean.”
The IPI said the media enjoyed a high degree of freedom in Trinidad and Tobago, where the IPI had been carrying out a campaign to abolish criminal defamation laws for more than two years.
“Nevertheless, harassment against journalists is not entirely unknown on the Caribbean island. Last March, according to local sources, a female reporter was accused by a government official of treason for publishing information critical of the government.
“Although the journalist has not been formally charged with treason, a charge that carries the death penalty, IPI has joined journalists in Trinidad in expressing concern over this type of harassment, which almost inevitably leads to self-censorship among journalists,” the IPI said.
Meanwhile, the Trinidad & Tobago Transparency Institute said it was “gravely concerned” by the death threat made against the life of Bassant.
“Such a threat represents an attack on the freedom of the Press, which must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Transparency is further dismayed at the statement ascribed to the Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams. A death threat cannot be excused or justified under any circumstances and in fact requires official condemnation from the government and the opposition.”
Williams over the weekend defended his statements made during a radio interview following criticisms from the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) and Martin Daly, SC, the former head of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago.
Williams said that while he had great respect for Daly in his capacity as an attorney-at-law, and agreed that there was freedom of the Press, constitutionally guaranteed in Trinidad and Tobago, he would never do anything to interfere with such freedom.
He said he hoped Daly had the opportunity to listen to the short interview and did not write his statement on the basis of what he read in the daily newspapers on Saturday.
Williams insists that “during the short interview, I never said that the journalist Mark Bassant ‘has looked for it by his irresponsibility’ and I did not allude to that.
“I wonder whether Mr Daly is aware of what exactly journalist Mark Bassant reported to the police. I will not engage in a war of words with Mr Daly or anyone else as individuals are entitled to their personal opinions,” he added. (CMC)