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‘I have rights too’

By NEWSDAY REPORTER Friday, November 7 2008

click on pic to zoom in

PRIME Minister Patrick Manning yesterday served notice of his agenda with respect to the media of Trinidad and Tobago.

Item 1: Take the TnT Mirror to court for their report of Sunday, November 2,

entitled, “Manning loses his cool — Enraged PM storms into Power 102 following midday newscast that did not bring music to his ears.”

Item 2: Sue any media house whose reporting aggrieves him.

Item 3: Visit any offending media house “as the spirit moves me”.

Manning laid out this plan at yesterday’s post-Cabinet news conference, PM’s Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, where he defended his visit to Radio 94.1 FM on October 25 to complain of a broadcast, and denied he was threatening media freedom.

Manning said it was his right to visit Radio 94.1 FM just like any private citizen. “Any concern therefore about threats to the freedom of the media are entirely without foundation. Totally unfounded.”

He said while the media has the right to criticise people, it also has responsibilities.

“Rights are not absolute. They exist to the extent that they don’t encroach upon the rights of others, and if my rights are trampled in that process then I too have redress under the law.”

Wasn’t it wrong for his complaint to lead to the suspension of two employees at the radio station? He replied: “First of all I didn’t suspend anybody from a radio station. I have no such authority. Therefore if individuals were suspended from radio stations it would be purely an internal and management issue. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Prime Minister.”

He reiterated his right to visit Radio 94.1 FM. “If it is proper for a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago to visit a radio station, then it cannot be improper for the Prime Minister as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago to do the same, unless, of course, there are rights available to every citizen of Trinidad and Tobago except the Prime Minister of the country. That of course, cannot be so. In visiting the radio station, all I did was exercise a right that is available to all citizens including the Prime Minister. There could be absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

Asked if in the future he would visit other “offending” stations, he said: “As the spirit moves me.”

He said his options over an improper broadcast, included visiting the station, raising it through a government minister, complaining to the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago or the Media Complaints Authority or the Media Association, or go to the courts. Regarding whether politicians should ignore alleged media criticisms, he said he was now determined to pursue a course of action to ensure equity prevails.

He said none of the 34 radio stations, seven television stations, three daily newspapers, and weekly papers, have a pro-Government line.

“What is worse is that too many of the commentators either in the newspapers, or in the media or on the radio, do not respect our institutions. It is a question of being disrespectful to institutions and authority, and pursuing a course of action that could cause the image of these institutions and individuals to be tarnished in the minds of those in whose interest they are set up to serve, and therefore they could become completely non-effective. That is the risk that we run.”

Manning said he had long followed this issue.

He said: “I have taken a personal decision that if ever I am aggrieved by anything the media does in the future, I am going to the courts. I am going to the courts.”

He then highlighted what he said were inaccuracies in the TnT Mirror story.

“First of all Manning did not lose his cool. Secondly, I did not storm into any radio station, least of all Power 102; I went to 94.1. The issue is not to do with music; it had to do with unprofessional conduct of the reporting of the news. The front-page and the headlines were wrong in four instances. This can’t be proper journalism, and therefore I am taking this matter to the courts. That is where I would get my redress in the future.”

Had he visited the station in a convoy and with his armed security-guards?

“How do you get from the Prime Minister arriving at a radio station with his normal complement of security guards to the use of an armed presence to control freedom of expression? The Prime Minister whenever he travels has a security detail. It is normal in all countries; the leaders have security of one type or the next. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Prime Minister is no exception. The security we had on that day was no more than is normal and was no less. It was the normal security that was associated with the conduct of prime ministerial business.

“The second point is this: whenever the Prime Minister has to embark or disembark from a vehicle on a public street, what the security people normally do as a normal security procedure is prevent any vehicle from passing at that time, to ensure that the integrity of the security is preserved. Whenever the Prime Minister completes the exercise of embarking or disembarking from the vehicle, then the normal flow of traffic is resumed. That is exactly what happened that day outside of the radio station. It is nothing unusual. It is prudence in the conduct of our security business.”

Told his complaint as PM may have had led to the two broadcasters’ suspension, he replied: “What does it matter if I am Prime Minister? Who was the one who was attacked? Was it any other citizen? The Prime Minister was attacked. What do you want me to do? To say that if I intervene to protect myself somebody could get suspended and therefore I don’t intervene. You can’t be serious.”

He said he had complained to the station owners but generally expected no redress from media houses. “Whatever they do in the radio station has nothing to do with me. They had suggested they investigate the matter and get back to me, and I said ‘get back to me for what?’ It has nothing to do with me. Whatever you do, you do, that’s you radio station. You run the radio station and I’ll run the country, together with my Cabinet colleagues.”

What had been his complaint to Radio 94.1 FM’s management?

Manning replied: “What I thought was the unprofessional conduct of the two broadcasters.” He challenged reporters to listen to the offending broadcast and make their own conclusions. Pressed to specify what was offensive, he said: “My judgement of the comment is that it was unprofessional conduct. I’m not getting into any details.”

Wasn’t it highly unusual for a PM to rush to a radio station to complain?

Manning said after hearing the broadcast on a radio in a San Fernando barbershop, he had not immediately rushed to the station but had first visited Augustus Long Hospital to see a friend, and visited Petrotrin’s executive chairman, Malcolm Jones at Pointe-a-Pierre, and then left for Port-of-Spain.

“So any suggestion that I hustled out of the barber saloon drove up to the radio station and stormed the station to put the best face on it is somewhat exaggerated.... On my way home I just dropped into the station. I live in Port-of-Spain, I don’t live in San Fernando.”

He denied he was intimidating, and said: “They tried to intimidate me by the report.”

Asked if he might lose on the broader issue of media freedom, even if his right to be upset in this specific case, Manning said the Government and media must both operate on the basis of mutual respect.

“It can’t be the Government respecting the media and the media disrespecting the Government and particularly its Prime Minister. It can’t be that. When that disrespect takes place, what should the Prime Minister do? That if I go to the station that somebody is going to feel I am trying to intimidate the media and therefore I should do that? I’ll do no such thing!”

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