The fallout over the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister‘s visit to a radio station to complain about critical comments made against him during a newscast appears to have only just begun. Local mainstream media continue to apply pressure, although in typical Trinbagonian fashion, some of the coverage is peppered with humour – a task made easier thanks to the untimely explosion of a light bulb in Parliament during a debate on the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Order:
In a subtle reference about Manning’s visit to Radio 94.1 FM on October 25, Panday (the Leader of the Opposition) informed the Prime Minister he would have no choice but to endure long lines at gas stations if he was an ordinary citizen who owned a car which was fuelled by CNG.
But bloggers see nothing humourous about what many of them consider to be the Prime Minister's attempts to muzzle free speech, although Caribbean Free Radio did have a chuckle or two about an anonymous email message she received that alluded to the whole controversy:
Did the sender of this message so desperately need to vent his/her feelings about Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s visit to radio station 94.1 FM that any Trinidad and Tobago-identified entity with the word “radio” in its name sufficed as a target? Or could it be that he/she thinks CFR is a radio station? Or perhaps a warning that I should expect a visit from the PM some time soon?
Then she gets serious:
I agree that the day a Prime Minister pays a visit to a media company that results–either directly or indirectly–in two people being suspended from their jobs, is a sombre day indeed for those who work in what has come to be known as the mainstream media. And when that same Prime Minister declares, in a post-Cabinet news conference, that he was well within his rights to visit the radio station, denies any connection between his visit to the station and the suspension of the employees, announces his intention to sue the TNT Mirror for their report on the incident, asserts his right to “sue any media house whose reporting aggrieves him” and to “visit any offending media house ‘as the spirit moves [him]‘”, who can blame the citizens of the country for feeling that freedom of expression–indeed, democracy–in Trinidad and Tobago is under serious threat?
Perhaps even more offensive than his threats are Mr. Manning’s efforts to shroud the clearly personal reasons for his beef with the media in the sheep’s clothing of officialdom. “Too many of the commentators either in the newspapers or on the radio do not respect our institutions,” he is reported as saying. “It is a question of being disrespectful to institutions and authority and pursuing a course of action that can cause the image of these institutions and individuals to be tarnished in the minds of those in whose interest they are set up to serve. And therefore they can become completely ineffective.”
Which I take to mean that our “institutions” are so feeble as to be rendered ineffective by the fact that the public thinks they’re not doing their job. And of course the reason the public thinks this they’re not doing their job is solely because the media tells them so, not because members of the public have dealings with these institutions and draw conclusions themselves. In addition to the impending suspension of our right to freedom of expression, should I also be bracing myself for the announcement that thoughtcrime has been added to the list of criminal offenses? Now there’s something that would aggrieve me.
KnowProSE.com exercises his rights by penning an open letter to the Prime Minister:
What, exactly, was the unprofessional behaviour that prompted your visit to the radio station? I understand that you have rights, but without such information there is an open question as to what the people were suspended for. Without that information, it appears to be censorship of the media – something which can only be alleged, but which tarnishes the reputation of your person, and more importantly, the Institution which your person is associated with. So I ask you, openly, to tell the nation why these people required your personal attention and presence.
Jumbie's Watch attempts to answer the question by linking to the transcript of what was said by the radio station announcers. He then puts in his two cents’ worth:
Personally, the Grumpy Old Man in me feels that while a newscast should be more professional and less personal, and that this is in poor taste, I can't see the ‘insult’ to Pa-trick. I've actually had more insulting opinions aired here on this blog.
KnowProSE.com suggests that the Prime Minister is:
…probably too busy driving around, blazing his way through traffic with his security detail, to get up on the World Wide Web and read up what's going on. And maybe that's part of his problem – a lack of connectivity, in a very figurative and perhaps more literal sense.
Nicholas Laughlin attempts to address that lack of connectivity in this post about the issue:
Many citizens would say the institutions and individuals of the Manning government are already “completely non-effective” at solving the real and urgent problems facing the country. Forget the murder rate, the babies dying in hospitals, the near-permanent gridlock of the country's transport infrastructure, the power outages and water lock-offs, the widespread belief in massive corruption and fraud at high levels of government, the secret new constitution now being drafted that will consolidate executive power, etc etc etc etc. What we really need to worry about, Mr. Manning seems to believe–and he even seems hurt that we don't agree–is a free press.
Mr. Manning's radio station raid is yet one more reminder–as if, Lord, we needed another–that in Trinidad and Tobago democracy is not a practice but a concept, and a concept that we still, forty-six years after independence, do not really understand, much less believe in. In a representative democracy–the form of government we claim–the people's representatives, our members of Parliament, and the prime minister chosen from among them, have the duty of acting in the people's interest. Instead–with the help of a constitution which already concentrates too much power in the executive's hands, a system of tribal politics that is destructive of clear thought, and a succession of politicians enamoured of the trappings of power–we are lorded over by an administration which seems to believe it is the people's duty to act in the government's interest.
Mr. Manning has demonstrated over and again his disdain for criticism–however useful, however well meant–whether it comes from the media, the public at large, or even from within his own party. The 94.1 incident is perhaps not even the most serious example we've witnessed of late. I have no doubt that the Trinidad and Tobago media, backed up by their regional colleagues, will face down Mr. Manning's threats of personal and legal action against journalists by whom he feels “aggrieved”. But who among us is facing up to the bigger and deeper crisis, the bankruptcy of “democracy” as a meaningful idea and principle and practice in twenty-first-century Trinidad and Tobago?
Because we are all responsible.
Are we to take all this to mean that the local media is above reproach? KnowProSE.com doesn't think so:
Yes, the media can do better. And I don't think that there's anyone in the media who would disagree, though defining what ‘better’ is can be a troublesome thing. The actions of Patrick Manning in the office of Prime Minister do not mean that media in Trinidad and Tobago shouldn't have some introspection. In fact, it should accelerate that introspection. Even so, the media has to protect itself and do so solidly – not armed with rhetoric and ridicule. It shouldn't treat the Prime Minister in the same way that he, apparently, wishes to treat the media.
The sad truth of the matter is that the government – including the Opposition, so don't get excited – has been so poor at informing the media and, by extension, the people of Trinidad and Tobago that one has to wonder what is really going on. The government does a stunningly poor job of informing media and the citizenry.
The media can do a better job. The government has to do a better job. Shoveling laissez merde at the media gets everyone where we are today.
And where we are today is that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago has spoken out against the Prime Minister's actions (blogger Media Watch publishes MATT‘s response to the PM's statements in his fifth post about the controversy) and bloggers continue to voice their disgust. Attillah Springer writes a poignant post entitled No, We Can't that makes the chasm between local politics and the new politics that Barack Obama has brought to America appear even wider:
No we can’t. We can’t speak out. We can’t have opinions.
No we can’t. We can’t go on air and question our leaders. We must behave. We must tow the line. We must be loyal subjects or be labelled as traitors.
No we can’t be outspoken. We can’t be satirists or investigators or analysts. We must take nice pictures of ministers. We can’t have a functional media because that would mean there would be too many unanswered questions.
No we can’t.
We can’t be anything else but suspicious of each other. We can’t speak our truths without first wondering and agonising about who will be antagonised. We can’t move on from this stagnant stink of self-censorship. How it go look if you say that? They go come for you. Legal or illegal. Accident or accidentally on purpose.
No we can’t.
We can’t possibly think that change is ever going to come to this place of ignorant, quick to anger, thin-skinned leaders.
We can’t ever get out of this morass of idiocy.
We can’t get up off our backsides and select someone younger and more thoughtful, whose vision is not of his own reflection.
We must not ever even suspect that there is another way. For what would be left of our leaders if they were to realise one day that we didn’t need them to be our thought police? What would they be without their control and their veiled threats but frightened old men who want to hold on to their power like they want to hold on to their thinning hair and even thinner grasp of logic and/or reality?
Unsurprisingly, in the face of such widespread criticism, The Secret Blog of Patrick Manning attempts to have the last word:
Except for the fact that they served pone again for tea, this afternoon’s session of parliament was mostly unbearable, thanks mainly to Imbert, who approached me during one of the breaks to inform me that people have started calling me “Joe Petit Quart” (the Trinidadian equivalent of Joe Six-pack) behind my back. This due to my insistence that I am just a regular fella with the same right to visit radio stations as any citizen. I fail to understand why people are finding this idea so hard to grasp.