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Talking to Trinidadian journalist and blogger Andre Bagoo

Journalist, writer, and blogger Andre Bagoo. Photo by Gerard H. Gaskin, used by permission.

Journalist, writer, and blogger Andre Bagoo. Photo by Gerard H. Gaskin, used by permission.

Andre Bagoo, 26, is a Trinidadian writer and journalist. Since October 2006 he has been based at the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, one of the country's three daily newspapers, where he is a specialist writer covering politics, with a sideline in arts and culture. He is also a poet and fiction writer, and has been published in journals such as The Caribbean Review of Books and the Boston Review.

Bagoo is best known in Trinidad for his fearless, hard-hitting political reporting, which has sometimes brought him into conflict with members of the current government. In November 2009, the Privileges Committee of the Trinidad and Tobago House of Representatives recommended that he be banned from the media gallery of Parliament after finding him guilty of an offence. The Parliamentary session expired before the full House voted on the recommendation, so the ban never took effect, but the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago denounced the move as “attempted intimidation … of journalists whose reporting may have embarrassed or offended the Government.”

In addition, Bagoo is a blogger. He started his personal blog, TATTOO, in 2007. There he writes about current affairs, the arts, and sundry matters. In October 2009, he launched a new blog, PLEASURE, devoted to covering “art in all its forms”. It amounts to a one-man cultural journal, posting reviews, essays, interviews, and news on visual art, literature, music, theatre, and film in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere.

I recently interviewed Bagoo via email about the relationship between his blogging and his newspaper writing, the Trinidad and Tobago mainstream media's attitudes to online channels, and the possible role of blogging in ensuring press freedom.

•••

Nicholas Laughlin: You started your blog TATTOO in May 2007, and for over two years you posted things like book and film reviews there, in addition to personal reflections. Why did you decide to start a second blog, PLEASURE, in 2009? Did you feel the kinds of things you wanted to write about — the kinds of cultural coverage you'd been doing there — needed a fresh start?

Andre Bagoo: I wanted to start over, yes: reculer pour mieux sauter. I had been going to all these different arts events and I wanted to create a vehicle that would better reflect the energy I was seeing all around me; so much is going on. With a blog, I thought I could create a space that straddled formal reportage and some informal banter; that created a forum in which I could experiment and have fun, and hopefully share that with readers.

NL: Do you feel that via PLEASURE you're able to engage in kinds of cultural criticism and commentary that the mainstream media in Trinidad and Tobago otherwise doesn't provide? And if they don't, why is that?

AB: Small media houses can only do so much with limited resources, especially under the kinds of pressures which they are subjected to these days.

The issue I have is with the very idea of reportage. With few exceptions, if you look at a good feature in the local papers and a good feature in a foreign newspaper, you will see certain similarities: a strong start, long sound bites, lots of narration, colour, and analysis weaving the piece together into a flowing, coherent whole. After a while you get the sense that if you've read one good feature or interview, you've read them all; there is a style that works and is adhered to, all over the world. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

The Internet allows you to break free from all that, to be as irreverent or reverent as you want to be; to be informal and to experiment by doing things that, perhaps, do not “work”.

This is what lies behind certain things on the blog, like the artist interview series. There I aim to answer Foucault‘s question of not “who” but “what is the writer?”, by giving artists free rein to pretty much say what they please, and to communicate directly with readers without authorial intervention. I don't intervene in these interviews, I just let the artists do all the talking. I think in some cases this has really worked well. In the interviews, we've seen sides to people like the poet Vahni Capildeo and writer Lisa Allen-Agostini that I don't think we would have seen had the format not been as free-rein.

NL: Were you inspired or influenced by any previously existing blogs?

AB: A friend introduced me to the website for a punky London publication called The Pix which I quite liked (unfortunately the site has since been taken down and is being redesigned). I also encountered a very simple arts website for the Centre for 3-Dimensional Literature and other arts blogs like Paramaribo SPAN and Town, which really brought home for me the potential of engaging in arts discourse online.

NL: Have you ever got a lead for a story or a piece of key information from a Trinidadian blogger or other citizen journalist?

AB: Most certainly, yes. The Internet (with sites like Facebook and Twitter) forms one of the richest sources of tips and information for the modern reporter. If you're serious, you cannot afford to ignore it.

NL: Very few other professional journalists in Trinidad and Tobago have their own blogs. None of the newspapers has a blog, though one of them uses Twitter to share headlines. Do you think the print media here understand the possibilities and implications of citizen media and online social media in general?

AB: Blogs require time and resources. Even if their potential as gateways to a global audience/market is really understood, I guess it’s really the short-term bottom line that appears to factors in, unfortunately. Which is fair enough if you're struggling to survive amidst an increasingly challenging environment. It's striking, I think, that all three dailies actually have websites in the first place. And I don't think it's going to be too long before things like news blogs happen. For instance, the journalist Afra Raymond has a very insightful blog on current affairs where he does a lot of explanatory reporting.

NL: Is it really so striking that in 2010 the three daily papers in Trinidad and Tobago have websites? What's more striking to me is how little use they make of their web presences, how static the sites are.

AB: Well, yes and no. I guess it's the same as I mentioned above: a question of resources and perceived potential revenue from what is already a relatively small (but growing) online market. In that context, we're lucky there are sites at all! Still it's true, there's a long way to go, and there is a global potential that has not yet been fully tapped into.

NL: As a professional journalist, you've been subject to what many see as an attempt at official suppression. Do you feel the situation in Trinidad and Tobago regarding press freedom, freedom of expression, etc., is tightening? What role might bloggers, Facebook users, Twitter users and others play in this situation?

AB: The situation has been tightening for a while now, and through successive government administrations. At the same time, the media is, on the surface, expanding, and therefore, in theory, becoming more of a threat to the powerful. So that journalists in this country are going to inevitably find themselves under attack.

At the same time bloggers/twitterers et al stand at the gates; they are at the forefront of what is, right now, the ultimate tool for free expression. Look at what happened in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti — the first images we had which really gave us a true idea of the terrifying extent of what had happened and is still happening there spread on Twitter and Facebook. The online community can reach millions. And more importantly, it can escape the machinations of those whose interests are served by silence.

But this is about to change. The next decade will see bloggers’ freedoms come increasingly under fire via tools such as threats of court action. And the Internet itself will become more heavily regulated by the state, and will be further used to increase state-sanctioned invasions of privacy. For now, though, the Internet is the best expression of that semblance of democracy that remains in our societies.

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