Trinidad and Tobago
Press freedom has faced neither more nor less jeopardy marked by violations, actual or potential, of standard expectations and of law.
Unrelieved concerns remain about the possibly disquieting potential, deriving from pending enactment of legislation for Cyber Crime and Data Protection. Even more threatening is the adoption by the Telecommunications Authority regulator of a Broadcast Code.
The Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTBA) continues to perform a watchdog role, guarding against perils for media in the pending legislation. Toward compilation and operation of a Broadcast Code, the TTBA is advocating for joint "co-regulation" with the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago.
Two over-arching developments define differences in circumstances. A change of government occurred with last September's general election, following a campaign marked by bitter political exchanges and extensive utilization of mass media and other advertising.
Much evidence supported the conclusion that the state-owned broadcast media were pressed into service of the campaign interests of the then ruling party. In consequence, as power changed hands, leading executives, among them veteran media players, took marching orders.
The Cabinet Minister of Communications, appointed as key player in the new dispensation, came to the position from a background as editor in print media, as head of news in television, and as weekly newspaper publisher. So far, however, the Communication Minister has not been identified with policy or practice initiatives designed to enlarge access to government information.
The government is yet to indicate preferences of its own for the direction and management of state-owned television and radio entities, and of its information services. Meanwhile, the practice continues to define state-owned media, under political direction, as places capable of alternately beckoning and burying promising media careers.
A world-market collapse in prices of energy and energy-based commodities has threatened the stability and viability of the T&T economy. A severe impact on the revenues of government, the largest employer, principal generator of foreign exchange, and also top media advertiser, is now making itself felt. This development threatens media balance sheets, if not yet survival.
Foreign exchange shortages seem likely to affect print media, even as it affords leverage to enable the government to play favourites among newspapers. Earlier instances of the state choosing which papers should receive foreign exchange to import newsprint had led to expensive litigation that ended in favour of media rights.
That legal precedent may serve to prevent another experience of effective newsprint denial. But the reality of state cash flow uncertainties, when government advertising bills fall due to be paid, can evidently be manipulated to the detriment of less-favoured media. This eventuality arises as a source of worry, and a possible jeopardy to free and independent media performance.
The general shrinking of income and spending power is certain to exert an impact on media, which will have to make do with fewer resources. As a result, capacity to invest in investigative endeavours, and generally in better performance, is adversely affected.
Again, tight fiscal conditions may well enable the government to induce media entities, for the reward of shrinking advertising funds, to play along with its agenda, through general dumbing-down, or keeping a distance from sensitive issues and aggressive reporting.
A commitment by the new government to pass whistleblower legislation has remained outstanding. This was dramatized when a key Cabinet minister made a deposit in a bank account of a large sum of cash.
Questions were asked by the recipient bank about the source of the cash, and a newspaper report of the transaction appeared. Both the Prime Minister and the minister involved condemned the bank for breach of confidence.
This episode inevitably raised questions about the true readiness and willingness of the government to enact legislation to protect whistleblowers who supply the media with information about suspected or real wrongdoing.
Broadcasters have flagged as grounds for concern the practice of local Telecommunications Authority regulators to impose changes in the band. This is ostensibly to clear up spectrum and make way for more stations.
This troubling practice is taking place on the occasion of concession renewals, when caveats were placed in some broadcasters' concessions. Instructions were also given to the effect that renewals no longer applied, but that reapplications were required.
Some private broadcasters may not be able to afford the switch from analog to digital, and to pursue a "business model" on that basis. The resulting reduction of private broadcasters could provide an opportunity for a reassertion in that field of taxpayer-funded state operations. Renewed state control in broadcasting can have likely dire consequences for resisting bias and achieving balance in news coverage, for one area.
The practice by some media people of accepting bribes and incentives to deliver content favourable to one party or another undermines the integrity of all media. Where enforcement of newsroom ethical guidelines against such practices has failed to have the desired effect, payola abuses could provide a basis for the intervention by regulators.
Generally, pressures on freedom of the press are not exerted on the basis of official or stated policies, but more so by individual operatives. Thus, over eight years, the Prime Minister, and several Cabinet members have held few officially scheduled press conferences.
The Central Bank Governor, having stopped quarterly press conferences, has chosen to hand-pick individuals for recorded television discussions on favoured topics.
Reporters' questioning of Government officials on unscheduled occasions has led to a heightened state of tension, and to accusations that reporters are anti-Government.
Government reluctance to facilitate information sharing with the media is given further effect by its failure to draft and enact of long-promised freedom-of -information legislation. Another unkept promise has been the modernization of the Defamation Act.
Additionally, the Government's failure to issue an additional free-to-air licence to any applicant continues to raise questions about the sincerity of official commitment to media freedom.
On the private-sector front, the increasing frequency with which legal action has been initiated to stop publication has had a dampening effect some media practitioners' performance.
On at least two occasions over the past year, private individuals and or business operators have resorted to efforts at "prior restraint". Robust lawyers' letters have threatened litigation on grounds of defamation, should specified information be published.
Media performance has also faced constraints resulting from application of a police "media policy". Against media objections, police officials have interpreted such policy to forbid the mere presence of reporters and photographers on the scene of a crime or tragedy.
Police authorities have claimed, however, to be redrafting that policy and have promised consultations with the media prior to implementation.