Attacks on the Press 1999: Trinidad and Tobago

While the government of Prime Minister Basdeo Panday pressured journalists to cover only the positive aspects of national life, several violent incidents highlighted the adversarial relationship between officialdom and the press.

The Panday government established the National Broadcasting Network (NBN), which unites various state-owned television and radio stations into a single corporate entity. Panday urged the NBN to celebrate “good citizenship and successful community achievement” in its news coverage. In early May, Information Minister Rupert Griffith preempted the broadcast of a news program on Trinidad and Tobago Television–part of NBN–in order to show footage of Panday presiding over a public event.

At the second annual Caribbean Media Conference, held in Port of Spain in May, Panday reiterated his earlier refusal to sign the Declaration of Chapultepec, a document affirming basic principles of press freedom that is sponsored by the Inter American Press Association. Panday had said previously that he would not sign the document unless a provision were inserted that repudiated “the untrammeled right of the press to…publish anything it wants.”

The country’s three daily newspapers–Daily Express, Trinidad Guardian, and Newsday–regularly criticize the government, but costs can be high. On May 25, two Newsday reporters were beaten by police while covering a demonstration. Editorializing about the incident, Daily Express said the journalists were attacked because they were “members of the profession the government of Trinidad and Tobago loves to hate.”

Local journalists reported that in June, free-lance cameraman Dave Rodriguez was also beaten by police after being arrested while working on a story about racial discrimination at a local nightclub.

May 25
Andy Hypolite, Newsday ATTACKED, LEGAL ACTION
Sampson Nanton, Newsday ATTACKED, LEGAL ACTION

Five police officers attacked Hypolite and Nanton, photographer and reporter, respectively, with the daily Newsday, while the journalists were covering a protest demonstration in Chaguaramas, a suburb of the capital, Port of Spain.

The officers attacked Hypolite as he was taking pictures of a demonstration protesting the electrocution of an electric-company worker in Chaguaramas, which the protesters attributed to company negligence. When Nanton attempted to use Hypolite’s camera to photograph the arrest, police attacked and arrested him as well.

Nanton informed CPJ that he and his colleague were taken to the police station of Carenage, an adjacent suburb, and held for more than five hours. They were released after posting their own bail. When they appeared in court the following day, both were charged with resisting arrest and obstructing justice. In addition, Hypolite was charged with assaulting a police officer, tearing the shirt of another officer, and damaging the watch of yet another. The case was postponed.

As the journalists were leaving the courtroom, police appeared. They detained Hypolite, took him back to the station, and charged him with the assault of a fourth officer. Hypolite was then taken back to court and again released on bail.

Nanton reported that he and his colleague appeared in court six more times before the end of the year; their case was postponed each time. The next hearing is set for early 2000.