No one, including expatriate Trinidad and Tobago Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs seems to know exactly why a battery of police officers invaded the offices of Trinidad’s Newsday newspaper in Port of Spain last week, spent several hours searching computers, files and other company property before carting away computer hard drives and flash drives, as well as other material in a move that shocked all across the island’s political divide.
The hitherto unprecedented move forced the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to condemn the action of the police, distance itself from passing any orders to the effect and to demand explanations from the already beleaguered police chief, under fire for a series of administrative gaffes including the force’s inability to stem gang-related murders.
“The execution of a search warrant on a media house by police officers is an extreme act,” said a clearly embarrassed office of the prime minister. “As such, it must be proportionate to the nature of the offence under investigation and the circumstances of alleged crime. The government does not know what prompted such strong action but expects a mature, disciplined, professional and responsible use of force by the police in the execution of their duties,” Persad-Bissessar said.
That it is the second time in weeks detectives had invaded a newsroom stunned nearly everyone in the media fraternity across the Caribbean, triggering widespread condemnation and calls for the head of the police chief and explanations as to why police had felt compelled to violate the newsroom of a media house in a non-criminal matter.
Opposition PNM leader Keith Rowley said the action of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service in this matter, was “hopelessly misguided and an abuse of the rights of citizens to know what is being done to them and in their name.”
“If this is allowed to become an acceptable way of doing investigations in this country, then the very essential freedom of the press which is enshrined in our Constitution will be effectively destyroyed and the population will be at the mercy of the Executive, which would always want to keep embarrasing information from the knowledge of the public.”
Prakash Ramadhar, leader of the minority opposition faction, COP said the police action ”is an atrocious attack on the freedom of the press,and we must all be vigilant to ensure that this is not repeated in the almost callous way it has been.”
“If you don’t have confidentiality of your sources you have nothing,” he added. “And this is an arrow in the heart of the responsibilities and authority of the media.”
At center of issue is the belief among members of the national integrity commission that reporter Andre Bagoo had had an inside track to commission members, allowing him to carry newspaper stories based on leaks from commission insiders.
Frustrated with the continuing reportage, police obtained search warrants and brushed aside internal security to carry out their search, seize property and later took Baggo to his city home to conduct a further search and confiscation of private property.
Both PNM and COP opposition groups also demanded answers from the police high command in 24 hours, while the umbrella Trinidad-based Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) said the “actions of the police reek of intimidation and can be interpreted as an attempt to put a damper on media efforts to get to the bottom of a matter of great public interest and concern.” Additionally, it said that “we are not comforted by government claims of ignorance in the face of this threat to press freedom in Trinidad and Tobago and call on the administration to clearly state its specific position on the actions of this arm of the national security infrastructure.”
From all appearances the invasion of newsrooms is becoming a habit. Last December, a contingent of 18 officers marched into the office of TV-6 in similarly intimidatory fashion searching for tapes of a crime program the station had aired a few days earlier.
Again, as condemnations continue to pour in. the country’s top cop said he had no prior knowledge of the raid.