Reporters Break Their Silence on Trinidad & Tobago Press Freedom Confusion

In the latest twist to the press freedom fiasco at the Trinidad Guardian, the three reporters who walked off the job last Wednesday (Dr. Sheila Rampersad, Anika Gumbs-Sandiford and Denyse Renne) have issued a press release detailing their version of events – and they make a point of saying they stand behind their initial claim that “there was a significant threat to press freedom; that threat wore the garments of political interference and its dimensions included, importantly, the sidelining of the Editor in Chief (EIC), Ms Judy Raymond.”

Their statement, released late yesterday in response to this article by Judy Raymond, began by explaining why they chose to speak out now:

We spoke publicly on the day of the walkout and Dr Sheila Rampersad spoke again on I95.5FM the morning after (Thursday July 11). A comment was solicited by and given to the Trinidad Express newspaper on the same day (Thursday July 11).

We have made no other public comment.

Following Ms Raymond’s statement published in the T&T Guardian on July 15, we have decided to break our dignified silence in the interest of our professional credibility and personal well-being.

It also provided a bit more background on the circumstances leading to their cry of “attack on press freedom”:

Critical to understanding the events leading up to the Wednesday walkout is a meeting that occurred on Tuesday (July 9) at 2.15 pm.

At that meeting, we were told by the MD and EIC that they had both returned from a meeting at the ANSA McAl head office, that there were many concerns with what was perceived by the Guardian Media Ltd’s board of directors to be our biased news reporting, and that things had come to a head. Two examples were mentioned: the Sunday Guardian lead of July 7 which carried the headline ‘Millions Leaving T&T’ and the T&T Guardian’s lead of July 4 under the headline ‘Rowley Escapes.’

The “Rowley Escapes” headline and stories, however, generated much debate between editors, who defended our representation of the story, and the MD. Flipping between pages one and three of that day’s paper, the MD said, essentially, that our coverage of the story was biased in favour of Dr Keith Rowley and Mr Colm Imbert and against the Privileges Committee. The MD said the board of directors was unanimous in that view. The MD said the EIC had to go ‘offline.’

When asked how we were to proceed in an environment in which the EIC was ‘offline’ for vague, undetermined reasons, and with increasing instability in the newsroom that would only be heightened by the EIC’s physical absence, we were told by the MD to tone the paper down.

The reporters also revealed other details:

We were told the EIC going ‘offline’ to work on an editorial policy and the toning down of the paper in the interim comprised the best option available following the MD’s and the EIC’s meeting at head office. Someone asked what the other options were. There was silence, then the EIC said, ‘It’s either this or we both go.’ ‘We’ referred to the MD and the EIC. One editor asked whether we could meet with the GML board to dialogue; the MD said no, that was out of the question.

Later on Tuesday, editors were told by the EIC that someone was being sought to sit-in on the afternoon editors’ meeting which determined the news content of the next day’s paper. One person was approached by the MD; that individual requested time to consider. A short time later, another person was approached by the MD; that person sat-in on Tuesday afternoon’s editors’ meeting.

The release then referred to a series of text messages and emails reportedly sent between Editor-in-Chief Judy Raymond, Dr. Sheila Rampersad and Anika Gumbs-Sandiford. The release noted that “these messages and other correspondence quoted here, along with many more, remain in our possession as corroboration”:

Uncertainty grew on Tuesday night during which Dr Rampersad and Ms Raymond exchanged a number of text messages relevant to fluid developments. The idea of a walkout, floating around since Monday, took shape on Tuesday night.

On walkout Wednesday, some editors arrived at the office with that idea (walkout), one aspect of which was to confer before walking out. The conference occurred.

At the conference, the EIC suggested waiting until ‘tomorrow’, adding an hour or so later that her lawyer had advised her not to do anything drastic until she spoke to him. The EIC later left to see a lawyer on Duke Street. Notwithstanding this, Ms Raymond, on walkout Wednesday at 2.58 pm, texted Dr Rampersad saying, ‘I need to get out of here. Will be following you in matter of hours. Talk later. Thx for everything xx.’

After the walkout, at 5.56 pm Wednesday July 10, the EIC texted Dr Rampersad following Dr Rampersad’s immediate post-walkout interview on I95.5FM: ‘Heard interview. Great.’

Investigative reporters Ms Anika Gumbs-Sandiford and Ms Denyse Renne affirm that, contrary to the EIC’s statement in today’s Guardian, they were at no time asked, told or advised by the EIC to defer their resignations for 24 hours.

Ms Gumbs-Sandiford confirms that the EIC was in possession of her resignation letter since 1.44am on Wednesday July 10. There was no response advising Ms Gumbs-Sandiford to defer her resignation. In fact, Ms Raymond responded at 7.30am via e-mail: ‘Thanks for letting me know, Anika. I am so sorry it has to come to this. Thanks for all your great work. All the best.’

At 8.20 am, having already agreed on the walkout the night before, the EIC texted Dr Rampersad: ‘Cd you call Anika & ask her not to send letter yet? GF [Gabriel Faria, the company's Managing Director] on way to talk to Norman now, still hoping to save the day. If not, we’ll go together after that’.

Dr Rampersad responded: ‘It’s over.’ Ms Raymond acknowledged that with a sad-face emoticon.

The joint statement took the position that the reporters’ walkout enabled the subsequent dialogue between the Editor-in-Chief and Guardian Media's management:

Ms Gumbs-Sandiford and Ms Renne confirm that they resigned in support of Ms Raymond knowing that if Ms Raymond went ‘offline,’ very soon they would have also been sent ‘offline’ given the number of protests that followed the investigative stories they wrote.

Our silence between Thursday morning and today is not to be interpreted as stupidity, cowardice, or belief in the convoluted spin generated by GML. We are clear that the issue at the start of last week was interference in the editorial processes and products and the suspension and/or potential dismissal of Ms Raymond.

That there was dialogue between the EIC and management from Thursday July 11 was not inevitable; our walkout enabled that change.

It ended by denouncing the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago's claim that Gumbs-Sandiford and Renne were back on their reporters’ beats at the Guardian:

Contrary to reports from the Media Association of T&T, none of the three journalists who walked out is back on the job. None of us was contacted before or after the MATT news release was issued.

We remain unshakeable in our conviction that we took an honourable and principled position; we have no regrets.

The public will adjudicate on whether the confusion of the past few days can be accurately termed ‘misinformation,’ ‘massive miscommunication’ or, quite simply, lies.

Global Voices will continue to follow developments.

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