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Trinidad & Tobago: Where's the Integrity?

Transparency and good governance have been popular topics in the Caribbean blogosphere of late, thanks to stories on financial impropriety, concerns over massive spending of taxpayers’ dollars and anxiety over freedom of the press.

The latest debacle over integrity (or lack thereof?) comes from Trinidad and Tobago, where, in the last few weeks, a second attempt to establish an Integrity Commission has come to a crashing halt amidst revelations that the Chair of the Commission, a Catholic priest, had committed acts of plagiarism in his weekly column for a local newspaper. To add insult to injury, Fr. Charles claims that he drew this act to the attention of President Richards, whose job it is to appoint members of the Commission, and was told it was “okay” – this decision allegedly from a man who spent years at the helm of the University of the West Indies. Father Charles has since resigned from his post, citing Canon Law as the primary reason for his withdrawal.

To add even more fuel to the fire, the journalist who drew attention to the plagiarism in the first place, has been fired from his post at Newsday, supposedly in retaliation for his actions – and even though the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago appears to have remained silent on the issue, bloggers certainly have not, even posting their views on Twitter.

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B.C. Pires, a Trinidadian journalist-turned bogger who now resides in Barbados, has been following developments from the outset. As early as May 7, he published a letter he wrote to local media houses:

My colleague Kevin Baldeosingh quite responsibly brought to national attention the use by putative Integrity Commission Chair, Henry Charles, of arguments and language copied from (1) an op-ed piece in the New York Times of 9 December; and (2) a column by Darin Belousek published in the National Catholic Weekly on 30 March.

I invite citizens to locate on the Net and compare a column written by David Brooks in the New York Times on 7 May, 2006, called, “Marshmallows and Public Policy” with one titled, “The Marshmallow Test” published a week later in the Guardian under the byline of the good Henry Charles.

If once is mistake and twice, habit, would three times be standard operational procedure? What does this reveal about the integrity of Mr Charles? As with governments, do countries get Integrity Commissions they deserve?

Fellow blogger This Beach Called Life backs up B.C.'s position in a post from the same date:

Somehow I don’t feel a self-confessed, under-pressure, serial plagiarist should be allowed to even come within 1000-feet of a member of the Integrity Commission much less chair it.

If Kevin Baldeosingh didn’t point out the plagiarism to The Father would he have confessed? That is the big question but the answer seems horribly obvious. And as Kevin Baldeosingh said ‘I found the apology unconvincing and I would have let the matter rest there, except I am now wondering what will happen when, as chairman of The Integrity Commission, Mr. Charles, finds himself under pressures rather more intense that writing a weekly newspaper column.’ Please note the inverted commas and thus no plagiarism.

B.C. Pires, himself no stranger to being fired from mainstream media gigs, continued to keep a close eye on the situation, eventually posting this blog entry once he noticed that “Newsday has not run my erstwhile newspaper and still Humanist Association colleague Kevin Baldeosingh’s column for the last two Fridays. I suspect there is a connection to Kevin having done Trinidad & Tobago and the world a favour by uncovering the hypocrisy of our own plagiarizing priest/wannabe Integrity Commission Chair, the good Henry ‘Hey, I Completely Forgot About Copying That David Brooks Column’ Charles.” He then goes on to publish the third column of Baldeosingh's that had failed to appear in print.

Other bloggers soon rallied to Baldeosingh's cause once it was confirmed that the journalist had indeed been fired. Pires writes:

And so after two weeks of suspense – literally, too, just leaving him dangling, not using columns he dutifully supplied, without the common decency of an explanation – the Trinidadian newspaper, Newsday, has sacked Kevin Baldeosingh, easily its best writer and the only semi-public figure to have displayed any integrity in the whole Integrity Commission bullshit affair; and you have to take your hat off to Trinidad; nowhere else would have the gumption to publicly punish someone for doing the right thing.

And now, in a plot twist Albert Camus might have rejected for his novella, The Stranger, Kevin, the open atheist, is being punished for revealing the hypocrisy of a priest his own newspaper would have hushed up.

Shame on Newsday, shame on the priest – how he sleeps at night, the Devil alone knows – and shame on Trinidad & Tobago for penalizing the only person in the whole shebang that did the right thing and protecting the scoundrels who let us down.

This Beach Called Life says:

This blog supports Kevin Baldeosingh because this blog…
* …believes in integrity
* …is against hypocrisy
* …supports people of intelligence and honesty
* …is against cover ups, regardless of imaginary heavenly or social affiliation
* …is against any newspaper that tried to hide vital truths from the public since that newspaper’s opinions are now tarnished beyond shine
* …understands people who hide vital truths from the public is part of the real problem

Caribbean Free Radio adds:

The more important point…is that Baldeosingh was dismissed from his job for doing—regardless of where he happened to be doing it—what journalists are supposed to do, i.e. investigate a matter of public interest and present the information to the public.

Finally, journalist/blogger Attillah Springer, who admits she is not a Baldeosingh fan, is big enough to see the bigger picture:

I get no joy from the news that Newsday hasn’t run Kevin Baldeosingh’s column for the past three weeks, leading to speculation that he has been fired. You attack one, you attack all. And when the neighbour house on fire, Jah know you better start wetting your own. Or so it is in my book.

It’s not just about free speech. It is about undermining investigative journalism. Intimidating other journalists who might want to put God out of their thoughts and try to expose some injustice. It is a warning to others to not step out of line. Who wins, then? Who wins when voices are silenced? Who wins when a priest can get away with lifting some copy from another writer but teenagers are on trial for buying copies of exams? Who wins when a journalist gets fired from a newspaper for daring to challenge a holy man even as children’s jhandis are under threat at Barrackpore West? We have lost track of reality. We have lost a vital voice in our national conversation. We have lost our sense of perspective. Nobody wins.

The thumbnail image used in this post, “jonathan kevin anu news that stays news”, is by Georgia Poppplewell, used under a Creative Commons license. Visit Georgia's flickr photostream.

  • Footnote

    We have lost our way in Trinidad & Tobago. When the Law Association of that country issues a press release (see link – http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,100674.html) such as this, we all have to sit up and listen. Abuse of power comes from all sources – from the newsrooms of daily newspapers right up to the serene residences of Heads of State.

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