Attacks on the Press 2001: Trinidad and Tobago

This oil- and gas-rich island nation, whose population is equally divided between people of African and Indian descent, moved from crisis to crisis after elections in December 2000.

Former prime minister Basdeo Panday’s United National Congress (UNC), supported mainly by Indo-Trinidadians, narrowly defeated the People’s National Movement (PNM), generally supported by Afro-Trinidadians, in elections that the PNM charged were fraudulent. Both parties challenged some of the results, though the challenges became moot when the prime minister called for new elections in October after the UNC lost its legislative majority because three of its representatives defected.

The elections ended in a tie, with both the UNC and the PNM winning 18 seats, sparking yet another constitutional crisis. According to the constitution, the president may appoint a prime minister who he thinks will command a majority in Parliament. During the last week of December, PNM leader Patrick Manning was sworn in as prime minister after President Arthur N. R. Robinson chose him to break the tie.

In 2000, then-prime minister Panday refrained from his usual tirades against the press in advance of the elections. But in 2001 he lashed out at the media, which has actively covered several corruption scandals. According to John Babb, news editor of the popular paper Newsday, Panday called such reports “lies, half-truths, and innuendos.” Babb told CPJ that when unfavorable stories appear, politicians often tell their supporters not to buy those papers and also to pull advertising from them.

Wesley Gibbings, a free-lance journalist and president of the recently launched Association of Caribbean Media Workers, said that in addition to government suppression, the business community has also tried to control the press. “While the principal, immediate threat appears to be the attitude of the government, a very real threat exists from among the ranks of the commercial sector,” he pointed out. “It usually takes the form of withdrawal of advertising,” he added. The fact that many media outlets are part of business conglomerates complicates the situation, Gibbings said.

In these tumultuous times, the country’s 11 radio stations have played a very important role, according to Gibbings. Many feature shows where callers talk openly about controversial issues. “Most of the discussion,” Gibbings noted, “has focused on claims of corruption.”