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Ask us about Press freedom

By Suzanne Mills Sunday, July 21 2013

click on pic to zoom in
Former Senator, Robin Montano stamps on a copy of Newsday in 2001...
Former Senator, Robin Montano stamps on a copy of Newsday in 2001...

One Monday morning in 2003, a senior political reporter who constantly boasted of her daily six am chats with then Prime Minister Patrick Manning came to me with an ominous message.

At the time I was editor in chief of Newsday and I was also writing a Sunday column, No Red House for Manning:

In my view his intention to convert the seat of parliament into his office was a sign of a budding dictator. The message was if I did not desist from my campaign to save the Red House, the PNM Government would cease placing advertising in Newsday. I shrugged. But she insisted, “The paper will feel it.”

I reported the threat to management who realised that the gloves were off and that Government had declared war on Newsday. But management stood firm. No conglomerate to make up for a dramatic drop in revenue, still it insisted it was not going to be intimidated. It did not make the threat known to the public but pressed ahead with its work. I was permitted to continue my Sunday columns. Our determination to remain independent would cost loss of revenue but the newspaper survived thanks to its large circulation, its popularity and advertisers of the private sector.

Ironically enough, only the year before, PNM leader, Mr Manning had signed the Chapultepec Declaration on freedom of expression and at the time had proclaimed that his Government was determined to uphold freedom of the press and to do nothing that would suggest that the freedom was to be compromised in any way by Government’s actions.

Despite his lofty public declarations however, behind the scenes, moves were afoot to boycott Newsday, if not shut it down. Advertising agencies representing the Government, told the paper in the clearest of language that when they presented proposals for Government campaigns Newsday was always removed from the listing by the particular minister, ministry or authority on the grounds that we were in Government’s “bad books.”

When the “Excellence in Education” programme was initiated by the then Minister of Education, Hazel Manning, not one advert was given to Newsday.

The withholding of advertising reached its peak in 2009 during the Spanish royal visit and the Summit of the Americas when Government advertising in the print media, paid for with taxpayers’ money, went exclusively to the Guardian and the Express. With regard to the Summit, the Government placed 139 full page colour advertisements in the period March to April 2009. The Express received 74 and the Guardian 65. Newsday got not one. Both Express and Guardian also got two 4-page pullouts that gave guidance to the public with respect to movement in the security zones. For Newsday, zero.

The PNM’s assault on press freedom was not limited to the denial of advertising. Newsday’s editors and journalists would also increasingly be subjected to the wrath and ridicule of PNM ministers and officials, as Newsday held fast to its independence. One minister went as far as to insult an editor, accusing her of being paid by the UNC Opposition. Discrimination against the paper took place on all fronts.

When President Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in 2009, Newsday’s reporter was refused entrance to his press conference on the last day of the Summit at the Hilton on the grounds that there was no more room. Express and Guardian reporters, were easily accommodated. Yet television coverage of the event showed empty seats in the room where Obama addressed the media. And at around the same time, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paula Gopee-Scoon “invited” two editors to her office at Knowsley to ask why Newsday was not giving the Government a “good press.” She said the PNM wished Newsday to present a good image of the Government. She was told that Newsday’s job was neither to present a good nor bad image, but to report the news accurately and to comment as it thought fit to do.

She was not the only PNM minister to seek to scold or punish Newsday. On December 7, 2008 there was a trial run in San Fernando of the water taxi from which Newsday’s reporter and photographer were banned. When questioned why other media houses were allowed on board and Newsday was not, Majid Mohammed, a spokesperson for NIDCO, which was under the aegis of the Ministry of Works headed by Colm Imbert, responded: “Yuh know Colm don’t like all yuh!”

But it was senior investigative and political reporter, Andre Bagoo, who was investigating UDECOTT and Calder Hart, who without a doubt became the principal target of the PNM. Bagoo went to Cuba where Manning was undergoing surgery in 2008 for kidney problems. Manning launched a personal attack on Bagoo in Parliament. Manning suggested that Bagoo had fabricated his coverage, even though Bagoo produced photographs of the persons he had interviewed in Cuba.

Manning claimed that he possessed a report on Bagoo.

The “report” never materialized. Then Minister of Information Neil Parsanlal regularly called the newspaper to complain about Bagoo.

At post Cabinet press briefings Parsanlal would also shut down questions by Bagoo lecturing him about being “selfish” and not letting others ask questions. And his leader Manning once slapped his tape recorder away when Bagoo attempted to interview him at a public place about whether the Government was hiding the real cost of the PM Residence and Diplomatic Centre in St Ann’s.

In 2009, the PNM used the Privileges Com-mittee under Speaker Barry Sinanan, to launch an attack on Newsday. PNM Government officials on the Committee, then enjoying and finding no fault with their government majority, sought to get Newsday to reveal the sources of its information in relation to a report on Udecott. Newsday’s editor-in-chief, and Bagoo the reporter who wrote the story were summoned to appear before the Committee to answer more than 100 questions – including several questions over the paper’s sources. The Committee when it presented the report in Parliament wanted to ban Newsday from covering all debates of the democratically-elected House of Rep-

resentatives and its committee hearings.

It was not the first time Newsday was brought before the Privileges Committee. In 2005 three Newsday reporters were “invited” to a meeting of the Privileges Committee which was investigating the teacup brawl between MPs Dr Keith Rowley and Chandresh Sharma. I accompanied the reporters to the meeting and then Speaker Barendra Sinanan tried to keep me out and had to be told by the Clerk of the House that the reporters were permitted to have an adviser at their side. PNM MP Hedwidge Bereaux immediately questioned my credentials.

I told him I held a Master’s degree in Journalism from the University of London, with a Diploma in Media Law. The Committee then spent its time demanding the source/s of the Newsday report.

Even after the general election of 2010 the attacks on Newsday continued. At a post budget rally at Piggott’s corner in September 2010, Dr Keith Rowley, now the Opposition Leader, attacked the media, three times accusing it of being in the pocket of the PP Government. PNM Senator Fitzgerald Hinds, in a speech on the platform, specifically pointed Bagoo out to the crowd and said he hoped he did not accept a PP government job.

After the meeting, Hinds said that he hoped Bagoo’s weekly column reflected the quality of Dr Rowley’s Budget speech, and he followed Bagoo to the car in which Bagoo was travelling and slammed in the door!

Recently the trade union movement has accused the PP of political interference in the Guardian and has issued statements in support of a free press, yet two years ago on July 28, President General of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union Ancel Roget — on live radio – launched an attack on Bagoo, calling him an “eat ah food journalist” after Bagoo accurately suggested the date of the first planned “shut-down” of the country.

The OWTU had given Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar an ultimatum: remove the five per cent wage increase offer or they would shut down the country.

Former PNM MP Ralph Maraj has also been vocal these days, expounding on freedom of the press. But when he was Foreign Affairs Minister in the first Manning government he would give reporters information with a proviso: he had to read the story before it was printed. As for his boss, Manning during his first stint as PM, he would regularly invite editors to his office to use them as a sounding board, to have them inform him of how the country viewed what the PNM government was doing.

Over the past three years, Newsday has been accused of being in the PP’s pocket, word being that it was receiving the majority of Government advertising. Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday has been the most hypocritical. It was he who on February 2, 1996 barred Guardian reporters from access to government information in an effort to force the paper’s owners to fire editor in chief Jones P

Madeira and precipitated a walkout of several senior staff members, including editor Jones Madeira and managing director Alwin Chow.

When he was Prime Minister, Panday also called on advertisers to boycott Newsday and one of his senators, Robin Montano, on a UNC platform, stamped on and tore up a copy of Newsday. Yet Panday has had the gall to demand that the PP Government reveal the amount of advertising Newsday is getting, the suggestion being that there is a direct link between the paper’s editorial policy and Government advertising.

These accusations have not been supported by a scintilla of evidence and indeed were the accusers to check their facts, they would realise that Newsday now receives its fair market share of advertising and that the current Government gives the paper no preferential advertising treatment. Guardian and Express get the same. They should also be aware that freedom of the press allows a paper to choose whichever editorial line it sees fit.

And what about that senior reporter who brought the warning from the PNM? What role did she play as the PNM sought to impeach former CJ Sat Sharma, submitting stories that painted Sharma as seeking to influence the outcome of the Basdeo Panday Integrity in Public Life trial when in truth and in fact it was then Attorney General John Jeremie who was holding talks with the trial magistrate, Chief Magistrate Sherman Mcnicolls, assisting him with the sale of land in Trincity? Subsequently the Court of Appeal quashed Panday’s conviction and sentence and ordered a re-trial on the basis of apparent bias.

On the night of the 2007 general election that reporter was assigned to Balisier House, but instead of reporting to the newsroom, spent her time cavorting with PNM officials and celebrated with them their victory.

When she did eventually contact the newsroom, she submitted a false report-she claimed that former COP leader Winston Dookeran had won the St Augustine seat.

The next day, her job complete, she resigned.

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