Friday, February 10 2012
IN THE absence of the legal means with which to coerce Newsday reporter Andre Bagoo into revealing the source of his December 20, 2011 story on the administrative dispute taking place at the Integrity Commission between its Chairman Ken Gordon and its vice chair, Gladys Gafoor, Anti-Corruption Bureau police yesterday, acting on the instigation of the Integrity Commission, conducted an illegal raid on Newsday’s offices and Mr Bagoo’s home, seizing his documents, phone, flash and hard drives. The police may have had a warrant but it was a warrant obtained on flimsy law from a judicial officer who was clearly not in possession of all the facts.
The facts are and we will exercise our right to demonstrate these in a court of law, neither Mr Bagoo nor his source/s made public any information deemed secret under the Integrity Act, nor did Mr Bagoo give any indication in his story that he possessed any such information. There were no grounds for this investigation into Mr Bagoo’s source by the Commission or for the subsequent police raid on Newsday’s offices and on Mr Bagoo’s home yesterday: there was no crime to investigate.
Additionally, when we published the report of the row, we deemed it in the public interest. The Integrity Commission had gone through several management changes and a management row involving a newly appointed chairman was definitely relevant.
The true crime yesterday was the grave assault that was committed on freedom of the press in this country. The ninth of February will be recorded as a dark day for democracy in Trinidad and Tobago. If a reporter’s equipment may be seized on a complaint by the Integrity Commission, then media freedom is under serious threat. It is a most deplorable abuse of authority and an indication of how quickly some of those who preach differently are prepared to violate several constitutional rights, as a means to two ends: silencing this newspaper and settling internal scores —by finding the source of the reports.
It can be no coincidence that on the day Newsday’s offices were raided, Gladys Gafoor was suspended from the Commission and the President set up a tribunal to investigate her.
Without the slightest cause to believe Newsday in possession of secret information, the Commission asked the Commissioner of Police to commence a thorough investigation into whether any information or records of the Commission might have been disclosed to any unauthorised persons, when by his own admission on the morning the Newsday story appeared, Mr Gordon dismissed it as a report on an “administrative row”. Later that very day, the “row” would opportunely become “records and information” and be placed under the dubious ambit of a clause in the Act which prohibits members of the Commission from sharing the records of the Commission or information revealed by the production of documents or by a witness.
The Act has been misinterpreted for the sake of expediency.
Judicial review of the actions of the Chairman, Commission and police and decisions — the cause of press freedom demands a legal response — will show that they overstepped their bounds and have committed an unprecedented violation of four constitutionally guaranteed rights: the right to freedom of the press, the right to the enjoyment of property and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law; the right to equality before the law and the protection of the law; the right to respect for private and family life.
The section of the Integrity Act the Commission used to persecute the source of the leaks and hound this newspaper does not provide a blanket news blackout for the Commission. It definitely does not allow the Commission to abuse its authority to settle internecine disputes or to prohibit the media from reporting on these. The Commission may not wield a big stick and with it abrogate freedom of the media.
We call on the PP Government which has promised to fight corruption and abuse of office, and has repeatedly stated its support of Press Freedom, to condemn in the strongest terms possible the conduct of the police, and the witch-hunt by the Integrity Commission. No reporter or source may feel safe after yesterday, if police can so easily obtain a warrant to search newspaper offices and seize equipment and private information which may or may not concern sources. This action punishes whistle-blowers and discourages them from speaking to journalists, and it is a step backward for the battle against corruption. Trinidad and Tobago has been downgraded in the last Transparency index and it appears keen to continue that slide.
Ironically enough, the Integrity in Public Life Act 2000 was amended in 2010 to provide for the protection of whistle-blowers. Its section 14 protects employees of the State, a public authority or any other body from dismissal, suspension, demotion, disciplinary action, harassment, denial of benefits or from being otherwise negatively affected where such a person acting in good faith reports acts of corruption or misbehaviour. With its recent actions, the Commission has shown that where its conduct is concerned, everything must be kept hushed. If not, the Commission will send the police to harrass the whistle-blowers and the reporters who write the story they have to tell.