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As Pressure Mounts in Trinidad ‘Re-Route’ Protest, Pro-Highway Supporters Get Nasty

A member of the Highway Re-Route Movement speaks during a candlelight vigil at Nelson Mandela Park on October 12, 2014. Photo used with permission.

A member of the Highway Re-Route Movement speaks during a candlelight vigil at Nelson Mandela Park on October 12, 2014. Photo used with permission.

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement in Trinidad and Tobago are not backing down in their fight against the construction of one section of new highway they say will displace residents and harm the environment. The Trinidadian professor and activist undertook a second hunger strike 34 days ago as a follow-up protest action, prompted by the government's reneging of its promise to consider the findings of an independent review committee, known as the Armstrong report

But an advertorial designed to look like a bona fide newspaper report, which ran in the Trinidad Guardian last week, has changed the tone of any meaningful discussion. In it, a group calling itself “Citizens4dhighway” posted a photograph of Kublalsingh's feet, under which the caption read:

The Kub-lal. An unusual human reptile discovered here on the pavement basking in the limelight everyday outside the Prime Minister’s office, defies medical explanation by surviving without food and water for weeks without any sign of health issues.

The headline of the ad, “Trinidad and Tobago discovers a human reptile”, was just as mean-spirited. Wired868, a website popular for its political satire, did not let it slip by. It spared no criticism for the newspaper itself, for shielding its responsibility by saying it was a paid advertisement:

Phew. For a second, Mr Live Wire thought the Guardian newspaper was run by some perverse, soulless psychopaths with less human decency than the Boko Haram, who were happy to bully, slander and vilify a frail lecturer on a hunger strike.

But, no, Guardian did not really think those things; the newspaper was paid to publish it, you see. So that makes it alright. Not so?

It is a defence that would not work in court for a hit man or drug mule. But, for a multi-million dollar media house, who knows?

To underscore the point, the blogger shared this little joke:

An armed assailant fired a bullet which flew straight through the arm of a bystander and killed a passer-by. The police arrested the shot bystander.

‘But I didn’t shoot him,’ said the bleeding bystander. ‘Why are you arresting me?’

‘Because it’s through you the man dead,’ replied the policeman.

The made-up bystander obviously had a point. But the Trinidad Guardian, which collected money and then hid its payer’s identity behind a murky, unregistered organisation, has no case.

On Facebook, netizens were very critical of the ad — and the fact that the newspaper would even run it — saying that the discourse had sunk to a new low. Some even suggested it was the harbinger of “silly season”, as national elections are due next year. After the public outcry, the Trinidad Guardian printed an apology, which many thought was inadequate and just a means of dodging the responsibility for allowing the ad to appear in the first place.

The newspaper's official apology for running the anti-Kublalsingh ad. Photo of the apology as it was being circulated on Facebook; used with permission.

The newspaper's official apology for running the anti-Kublalsingh ad. Photo of the apology as it was being circulated on Facebook; used with permission.

Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement maintain that the Debe to Mon Desir stretch of road linking two main southern cities will displace a long-standing rural community and have a negative environmental impact on the Oropuche Lagoon and have put forward several factual arguments in support of their claims, many of which were echoed in the recommendations of the Armstrong Report.

The Re-Route Movement has even submitted its Optimum Connectivity Proposal to the government in an effort to end the impasse. Just over a week ago, the group held a candlelight vigil in support of transparency, mediation and good governance. Kublalsingh, who had lost consciousness and was warded at a nearby medical facility, was not in attendance, but the prime minister paid him a visit while the vigil was going on. The Re-Route Movement subsequently issued a press release thanking Mrs. Persad-Bissessar for “her kind visit” and detailing what was decided.

The government agreed to state what consideration it gave to the Armstrong Report, and promised that the works and infrastructure minister would invite members of the Highway Re-Route Movement to discuss the Optimum Connectivity Proposal. More than a week later, neither has happened. In the interim, the prime minister did not entertain either the request for mediation or to stop construction work on the highway.

Sadly, many anticipated things to sink to this level. Even before the offensive ad ran on October 18, blogger and public relations expert Dennise Demming republished a letter to the editor written by Paula Lucie-Smith, a Trinidadian who has been honoured for her work in adult literacy. In her letter, she lamented the fact that in the absence of the will to engage in respectful debate, the modus operandi of local politicians is always to go for the jugular:

Politicians humiliate those who challenge them – usually by saying they are mad. Because news in T&T focuses on what politicians say, they need only keep saying this for their self-serving opinion to become accepted.

Paula Lucie-Smith with political leader of the Movement for Social Justice, David Abdullah, at the October 12 candlelight vigil. Photo used with permission.

Paula Lucie-Smith with political leader of the Movement for Social Justice, David Abdullah, at the October 12 candlelight vigil. Photo used with permission.

Demming herself, in a follow-up post, wrote:

On each occasion that the PP [People's Partnership] Government has come up against any formidable opposition, they have used a similar strategy – to discredit the person, in the full confidence that some mud will stick and eventually doubt will be created about the issue.

In this case, the PM’s intention is to change the conversation and divert attention away from the Armstrong Report.

Meanwhile, Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement continue to address issues, saying:

[…] the vigil outside the Prime Minister’s office and hunger strike shall continue, that is no food no water, until there is actual evidence, as opposed to prevarication and stonewalling, of stoppage of works and a proper review done or agreed to be done.

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