Just over a month ago, the offices of Newsday, one of Trinidad and Tobago's daily newspapers, were raided by the police. They were looking for information related to an article written by journalist and blogger Andre Bagoo, which was published on December 20, 2011.
The “Bitter Row” the article spoke of was an alleged conflict between the Chairman of the Integrity Commission, Ken Gordon, and the Deputy Chairman, retired Justice Gladys Gafoor. Shortly after this initial raid, Bagoo’s home was also placed under surveillance and searched. Bagoo’s refusal of a police request to reveal the source for his story led to the seizure of his notebooks and computer hard-drive.
The brouhaha apparently revolved around Gafoor’s refusal to recuse herself – at the behest of Gordon – from a tribunal concerning John Jeremie, the former Attorney General. Jeremie had, upon assuming the office of Attorney General, declined to renew Gafoor’s appointment as an Industrial Court Judge, imposing a mandatory retirement age of sixty-five.
Jeremie also later shelved a report made by a Commission of Inquiry into the country's health sector, which Gafoor had chaired. Much of the online discussion was happening within the confines of Facebook, but there was also a fair bit of blogger commentary on the issue.
I have long contended that press freedom is not an instinctive rallying point for people of this small twin-island state (nor for the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean for that matter). That people are more culturally inclined toward direct, official censorship and regulation than they are toward unfettered media activity and free expression.
Gibbings also noted a great irony in the impetus for the raid:
The actions of the police also followed a report on the presumed leaking of information to the press from the country’s Integrity Commission, now chaired by former media entrepreneur, Ken Gordon – considered by many to be among the modern pioneers of regional press freedom activism. It was Gordon himself who threatened to get to the bottom of what appeared to be an unlawful sharing of confidential Integrity Commission information.
Social activist Philip Edward Alexander was troubled by the precedent which is being set:
There is an old Afghan saying – 'That which is obvious does not need to be explained.’ The abuses we allow, regardless of how small or temporarily justified could have the cumulative effect of changing where we stand now and what we stand for in the future. Reporters without Borders 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index ranked T&T tied for fifty first with Latvia, but just ahead of Haiti out of one hundred and seventy nine countries. Surprisingly Canada came in tenth, which indicates that at the very least our Commissioner and his assistant knows (sic) better.
Referencing the inquiry into the CLICO/CL Financial scandal, Alexander found the underlying issue of secrecy to be just as troubling as the raid:
Ostensibly being justified to protect the internal workings of the Integrity Commission, looked at strictly from that point of view, the non disclosure and secrecy that certain public institutions such as the Integrity Commission rely on should in no way be used to hoodwink or deceive the population. Oaths of confidentiality should never be allowed to trump the greater good as they end up either being a law onto themselves or worse, working against the nation's best interest.
Rhoda Bharath had a similar sentiment and even wondered whether there should still be an Integrity Commission:
This latest snafu with the IC has many calling for an end to the institution. What’s the point of this committee if we clearly no longer have citizens with integrity. It seems every week there’s a new problem with a member of the integrity commission. From priests who plagiarise, to entire Commissions being found lacking and having to dismantle. If we don’t have the people to man the board….then dismantle the Pappy Show!
The issue also garnered regional attention. Barbados Free Press noted that this was not just an issue in Trinidad:
We’ve had our own problems here in Barbados with the police strong-arming journalists, seizing their cameras and arresting journalists for photographing accident scenes and corrupt police officers. As a society we must be vigilant and aggressive about preserving the independence and freedom of the press. History has too many examples of what happens when citizens drop their guard.