Police raids on media threaten press freedom

PORT OF SPAIN, Feb. 13 – Four months before the island hosts the World Congress of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), the Trinidad and Tobago government finds itself on the defense in the wake of police raids on two national media houses in six weeks.

Police officers from the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau (ACIB), a unit within the Office of the Attorney General, swooped down on the Newsday newspaper and the home of one its senior political and parliamentary writers, Andre Bagoo, last Thursday.

“Our constitution enshrines the right to a free press as a fundamental human right and the government believes this is vital to our democracy,” the 20-month-old coalition People’s Partnership government said in a statement after the event.

Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs defended the action, noting that police “have a responsibility to uphold the law and conduct their investigations in accordance with that law.”

A similar search of a television station occurred on Dec. 29, 2011, prompting IPI, which holds its congress here from June 23-26, to state that “such actions inevitably have a chilling effect on media freedom and we urge the government to take steps to make sure that disproportionate shows of force like this don’t become a habit”.

“A raid by police on a media house always raises profound issues of freedom of the press and the permissible scope of government action,” said IPI executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie.

Yet less than two months later, the police descended on Newsday and Bagoo’s home in search of evidence they said would help identify the person who leaked information for the basis of a story showing discord between the chairman of the Integrity Commission, Ken Gordon, and his deputy, Gladys Gafoor. The police had written to Bagoo on Jan. 20 requesting that he reveal the source of the information.

“It is fundamental to the functioning of a journalist that she or he is able to protect sources of information. Without this, the work of the journalist, particularly the investigative journalist, is fatally impaired,” Newsday’s editor-in-chief, Therese Mills, said in a statement.

Ironically, the call for the police to investigate the leak at the Integrity Commission came from Gordon, a former newspaper publisher who has always promoted himself as a fighter on behalf of press freedom and after whom a school of journalism here has been named.

The Integrity Commission confirmed that it had requested the police investigation, even as it also acknowledged, “A free and independent media is one of the cornerstones of our Constitution and our democracy.”

But the Gordon-led Commission said that while it had “been forced to request a police investigation”, it was “not in a position to direct the manner of this investigation”.

Even Attorney General Anand Ramlogan sought to distance his office from the police action, saying that he viewed any continued connection between the ACIB and his office as “an embarrassment”.

He described the search and seizure of material by the ACIB from the newspaper and the reporter’s home as “unexplained” and “dramatic”, adding that while the ACIB was listed as being under his portfolio, he has “no jurisdiction whatsoever over this entity”.

He insisted that he only became aware of the police action after it was reported in the media.

But Newsday remained unconvinced. A recent editorial titled “Police State” asked, “To whom is the ACIB accountable for its actions?”

The Express newspaper, a sister company of the television station searched by the police, said in its editorial that “the search and seize operations at Newsday confirmed that last December’s lockdown of TV6 had been no aberration”.

“Trinidad and Tobago has somehow entered into a dread new reality,” the editorial warned, adding “until now, it had never been the case that media houses and media personnel could feel themselves directly threatened by coercive arms of the State”.

Condemning a growing threat

The regional media organisation, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), said it was “not comforted by government claims of ignorance”. It called on the administration of Kamla Persad Bissessar “to clearly state its specific position on the actions of this arm of the national security infrastructure”.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) suggested that the “incident appears to be part of a developing pattern of intimidatory tactics being adopted by the police service in dealing with the media”. It also mentioned the country’s recent downgrade by Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog agency, in its press freedom index.

“The overt or covert police intimidation of journalists must not be ignored,” warned the Jamaica Press Association, the region’s oldest media grouping.

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley, who said the police had been “hopelessly misguided”, warned, “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 destroyed.”

Stung by the open criticism, the Persad Bissessar administration, which came to power promising transparency and open government, “reaffirm(ed) its deep commitment to the protection and preservation of the independence and freedom of the media”.

“We believe in the open access of information to journalists rather than obstruction of the process,” the government said, calling the relationship between a reporter and his or her source “privileged and sacred” and claiming, “Police intervention can only be justified in extreme situations”.

The Congress of the People party, part of the coalition government, said it had given Police Commissioner Gibbs a 24-hour deadline to investigate the matter and make public his findings.

But as Assistant Commissioner of Police Fitzroy Frederick said on a radio program Sunday, the police do not report to politicians.

“Just as freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution, the police also have a constitutional role… Nobody could tell the police really what to do,” he said. (IPS/GIN)

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