Attacks on the Press 2000: Trinidad and Tobago

PRIME MINISTER BASDEO PANDAY, WHO HAS SPENT MUCH of his five years in office feuding with the media, found his government embroiled in a constitutional crisis at year’s end, after winning a narrow victory in elections held on December 11.

The population of this oil- and gas-rich country is equally divided between people of African and Indian descent. Panday, the first prime minister of Indian heritage, has been sparring with the largely black-owned media since his administration took office in 1995, and his outbursts have been politically costly. “Recent polls have indicated that the two issues that cost the administration popularity [and] votes are corruption and attacks on press freedom,” noted Keith Smith, an editor at the Daily Express.

The opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), which took 16 seats in the 36-member Parliament, was seeking to overturn the victory of Panday’s United National Congress (UNC) by challenging results in two of the 19 constituencies won by the UNC. The PNM charged that the two winning candidates were ineligible to serve in Parliament because both held foreign citizenship, although they were also citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.

One particularly intemperate remark landed the prime minister in court. On October 11, the High Court found Panday guilty of slandering Kenneth Gordon, a media magnate of African descent who is one of his leading critics. Gordon sued the prime minister for calling him a “pseudo-racist” during a 1997 rally.

During a September forum in the capital, Port of Spain, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT), together with other Caribbean media organizations, called on journalists to exercise independence and professionalism while covering the racially charged election campaign. Panday himself seemed to refrain from his anti-media diatribes as the election approached. As MATT president Wesley Gibbings observed, “With an election in sight, it was obvious that the government decided to abide by an undeclared truce with the media.”