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Commentary: Journalistic integrity and freedom of the press...
Published on May 26, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Phillip Edward Alexander

Many people over the past few months have been asking why all of a sudden they do not see my articles in the daily newspapers -- have I stopped writing? The short answer is no.

phillip_edward_alexander.jpg
Phillip Edward Alexander is a social and political activist, a feature writer and columnist, the founder of the Jericho Project and the chairman of the Citizen's Union of Trinidad and Tobago
But in response to my highlighting glaring abuses of journalistic responsibility and open bias being passed off as real journalism, the media did what every other special interest group does when you attempt to expose their shortcomings, and that is to circle the wagons and attack the messenger.

I have all but been banned from the dailies to silence me, even though all three papers have acknowledged the value of my contributions for years. What's the message? Same as any in a small country, I'm afraid, the same message that keeps most people silent and afraid to speak out.

And if I were an ordinary person I too would have been cowed into silence by now, but the fact that my daily readership on social media is greater than most of the established media, any attempts at silencing me can be a fool's errand at best.

As founder of three of the most used sources for information and current affairs on social media, myself and others on my team have access to an enviable 50,000 direct membership that has been known to mushroom to half a million 'views,' something that traditional media cannot match. The idea that perceptions could be controlled through special interests managing the message through corrupt members of the media fraternity 'skewing' stories and burying others outright is almost at an end, and while they have shut me off from my following among the aged and the infirm and the generation who still gets their news in newsprint, I am reliably informed that in matters of importance my words are 'lifted' off of the screens and into the conversation.

Founding father of the United States Thomas Jefferson is noted to have said, “Where the press is free and all man able to read, all is safe...” and I agree, but what of instances where the press is corrupted from within and co-opted to serve the agendas of others?

The fact is we are at a war for the hearts and minds of Trinbagonians, and the opposition forces are using their corrupt control of major media to block one side of the conversation even as they spew their questionable facts in a torrent of misinformation. Headlines that deal with a certain political leader's 'blackness' and its impact on him ever being elected to high office has been known to trump more important stories that were buried at the bottom of page 16, stories such as the incumbent chair of the CARICOM moving a motion to bar Dominican Republic's request for membership until they address their retrograde and racist policies on Haiti.

The problem is the value of media, the inherent freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of the republic have been hijacked by business interests and newsrooms have been co-opted by the corrupt. No longer the sacred calling of the fourth estate, in Trinidad and Tobago the news that we get may not necessarily be accurate, requiring news viewers and readers to almost suspend disbelief at the flagrant acts of censorship or biased reporting.

Take, for example, in the last week alone, a top daily newspaper has had its Sunday edition's headline rebuked by the commissioner of police as rubbish and absolute nonsense, while another's offering has been debunked by the actual interviewee who has since called other media to complain, to say that what was written and what was discussed are two completely different things and that what that newspaper carried was nothing short of slanderous and sensational for no reason supported anywhere by fact. The minister of national security himself has put out a release begging caution in reporting of crime stories and requesting that media be more responsible in ascertaining and delivering facts.

An independent senator has also weighed in on the issue of misdirected or poorly managed media and its potential to do harm to society when he said, “Much of what passes for radio and television talk shows here, particularly by social activists and political commentators, is beginning to resemble hate speech. Parallels to radio exhortations in Rawanda during their civil war can be found. Bacchanal has created cynicism and indignation, and many people arrive at work angry, having been regaled by commentary that supposedly exposes the stupidity or corruption of public figures but which in fact are extreme and intolerant views unsupported by data.”

And as harsh as that statement is and as sad an indictment it demonstrates, it is both factual and true, begging the question as to the role of the media in modern day Trinidad and Tobago. Should it not be guided to first do no harm? Should it not be governed by a code of ethics and of integrity? In one of her weekly columns, Sunity Maharaj insisted that the only thing the media has to sell is its integrity, and then undermined her own integrity by placing herself between the corrupt in the media and the society they serve.

Make no mistake, this is not a war WITH media, it is a battle to SAVE media. To save it from the special interests that have corrupted it and taken it away from its remit, to serve the people of the nation. That is the only reason for it being protected by the constitution, and unless it lives up to its designed purpose, media as it exists in Trinidad and Tobago makes a mockery of the intention of the supreme law of the land.

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have absolute freedom to publish as media and then use that freedom to publish lies and falsehoods. We, the people of Trinidad and Tobago, need to reclaim our fourth estate and redirect it to serve the greater good. I have suggested a ventilation of the profession only the deep and sweeping investigations of a commission of enquiry could effect, and based on the outcomes of any such enquiry, recommendations made as to ways to distance the newsroom and media in general from outside interference and control, to implement mechanisms by which business interests could own media without controlling it, and a proper complaints authority to rein in media workers guilty of abuse.

It is also my view that journalists should be chartered and governed by a code of ethics, so as to protect the public from misinformation and propaganda.

In every material way the media and all the freedoms it enjoys belongs to the people of T&T. It is time that those very same people had some say in what passes for media and journalism in Trinidad and Tobago.

Another of the founding fathers Benjamin Franklin weighed in, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as liberty without freedom of speech.”

I concur. We need a commission of enquiry into the operations of media…
 
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