Report to the 72nd General Assembly

Mexico City, Mexico

October 13 – 17, 2016


Trinidad and Tobago

In the absence of glaring press freedom violations, or apprehensions, media work has mostly proceeded in a climate hardly marked by abnormal inhibitions. Compared with immediate predecessors, the political administration that assumed office just about one year ago have been neither more nor less forthcoming and facilitative in the provision of state information.

The practice, going back since 2002, remained of holding weekly post-Cabinet media briefings, attended as necessary by leading figures of the administration. After initial forays, the Communications Minister ceased to play a personal role in such media encounters, with no explanation being offered for this. Early enthusiasm for review and consultation about the future of state-owned media has yet to result in changes more notable than the dismissal of executives appointed by the preceding administration.

Whistleblower legislation, which might hold potential for advancing investigative journalism, had been promised by the incoming administration. On this front, however, there has been little to show. Nor has any improvement appeared in the readiness of officials to respond favourably to Freedom of Information requests, leaving special interest individuals to pursue court orders through litigation.

The proliferation of social media, enjoying unfettered freedom, beyond that of the press and mainstream media, has complicated conditions for free-expression. With effective impunity, bloggers and "trolls" target the media as institutions and media people as individuals. Moreover, since such social media by definition uphold no recognisable performance standards, a negative example is set, notably for sourcing, in accordance with which conventional media are in danger of being judged by the public. As feared in the USA, social media excesses are likely to stir legal, and even legislative, retaliation that could well undermine traditional protections for free expression.

In an extraordinary outburst, the largely ceremonial President of the Republic of T&T made use of the occasion of a national address to castigate unnamed media people. He drew an unfavourable contrast between the performance of identifiable reporters today with that of named former practitioners. In remarks that included criticism of "journalistic outreach" and "armchair journalism", the President addressed scathing comments to "some journalists". As the Media Association made a sharp response, the effect was to make the head of state, who exercises little executive authority, a figure of rare controversy.

In a surprising turn, the Prime Minister, in a just published memoir, recounted a disputed episode involving an investigative woman journalist, who visited his home, when he was still Opposition Leader. The journalist, who claimed to have been disturbed by approaches made to her by the Prime Minister-to-be, resigned her position in the newspaper. All of this was factually reported at the time by the newspaper, including comments critical of the journalist. In his memoir more than one year later, however, the Prime Minister accused the former journalist and the newspaper of participating in a conspiracy by his political opponents aimed at discrediting him. The newspaper, and the media in general, have thus been caused to bear in mind the grudge-bearing character of the head of the government and ruling party

Worsening economic conditions, based on steady decline of energy-derived revenue, operate to the jeopardy of media dependent on advertising. Since the government has been a leading advertiser, reduced spending in this area operates to exert negative effects on media bottom lines. Moreover, cash flow difficulties claimed by state agencies have led to build-ups of receivables, potentially jeopardising to financial viability among media organisations. Financial dependence on government advertising may, it is feared, also enable the state to play favourites among media houses.