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Trinidad & Tobago's Media Association Pulls a 180 in Press Freedom Debacle

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago has retracted its original statement about political interference having a part to play in the alleged reassignment of key reporters in the Guardian's newsroom, leaving some bloggers wondering if the whole affair was a storm in a teacup or if the public is not being told the whole story.

The organisation's latest release, dated yesterday morning, said:

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) seeks to correct previous erroneous information…the impasse between the publishers of the Trinidad and Sunday Guardian newspapers and senior journalists has been reportedly resolved following discussions between the two parties. Apart from the resignation of Public Affairs Editor Dr Sheila Rampersad, the newsroom is now functioning as before with Judy Raymond as Editor in Chief. Investigative reporters Anika Gumbs and Denyse Renne, who were initially reported as having resigned, are on the job. Managing Director Gabriel Faria and Sector Head David Inglefield have not resigned as previously reported.

President of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) Suzanne Sheppard, who is the Business News Editor at the Trinidad Guardian, described the events of the last 24 hours which led to speculation of political pressure on journalists at the daily newspaper as case of a ‘massive miscommunication’ between the publishers and journalists.

Sheppard said she is convinced, following discussions with senior executives, that the events of the past few days when Judy Raymond was asked to go temporarily ‘off-line’ to review editorial standards in the newsroom had ‘nothing to do with political intervention'.

Sheppard said freedom of press issues were raised only due to an unfortunate combination of events that will be revealed in a press conference on Monday.

The post on MATT's Facebook page garnered only two “likes” but attracted some unfavourable commentary. One reader, Rhoda Bharath, who blogs at The Eternal Pantomime, said:

I think the public is owed an apology…and at least two resignations…because this body was used to promote the story. The public didn't dream this up…YOU, MATT, are GUILTY of irresponsible information dissemination. SHAME ON YOU!

On her own Facebook wall (the status updates are reproduced here with her permission), Bharath shared the link to the new MATT statement and quipped:

So apparently MATT…who happens to be headed by Suzanne Sheppard and Judy Raymond, got it wrong…About Face and Cover Up now in full effect…it means people who draw a salary for the purpose of responsibly and reliably informing the public, doing so under false pretences (sic). And we have to take it, I guess. No proper explanation. No apologies.

Another Facebook user, Valerie James, simply wrote:

COVER UP!!

The organisation attempted to respond to the criticism by replying:

Unfortunately two of our sources were wrong about the resignation. Part of responsible journalism is about issuing apologies when due. There will be a press conference on Monday which should answer questions. I hope all media workers come to the next Matt meeting.

Dex Perado immediately questioned MATT's “sources”:

You used sources for your posts? Who were the sources? Tntfinder? Because what I saw was MATT piggybacking on a story that tntfinder ran–a story that itself relied on hearsay.

A big part of crisis communications is waiting–waiting to ascertain the facts so as to devise a coordinated response. Did you do that? No, what you did was fire off a series of boilerplate bs ‘press releases’ that were largely emotional in tone.

As the MATT, you have a responsibility to defend and uphold the highest ideals of the profession. Those ideals are rooted in fact-based reporting. Did you have all the facts before you issued a response? No. You should be setting the standard. Instead, you are doing things that are detrimental to the profession you represent.

Ann Mc Carthy added:

Faria has been on CNC3 7pm news talking about the situation trying to say ‘everything is OK etc.’ but in my view somewhere over the chirpy everything is alright rainbow are some dark clouds that nobody wants to talk about because they are trying to do damage control. They can jump high and jump low, press has previously been a target under PPG [People's Partnership Government] and proof of it was on TV from different ministers plus preaction protocol letters to a journalist.

Wired 868′s Lasana Liburd also had some stinging criticism for the media association:

Faced with a crisis of journalistic integrity and political pressure, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) did what it does best: fired out an eloquent press release, curled into the foetal position, counted to a thousand and then went back to work.

To recap the Guardian drama-that-wasn’t but kind-of-was: On Wednesday afternoon, MATT president and Guardian editor Suzanne Shepherd posted on Facebook that ‘the most vile attack imaginable on freedom of the press (is) now in progress and I am in the midst of it.’

A few hours later, MATT reiterated that it is ‘monitoring with serious concern developments over the last 24 hours at the Trinidad Guardian newsroom that appears to be a major threat to press freedom.’ And MATT stood ‘in solidarity with MATT president Suzanne Sheppard and MATT vice president, Judy Raymond, both of whom are part of the Guardian’s key editorial team and are reported to be personally dealing with fallout from this political interference on the newsroom.’

While MATT was ‘monitoring’ and ‘viewing with alarm', Guardian public affairs editor Dr Sheila Rampersad and investigative journalists Anika Gumbs-Sandiford and Denyse Renne sprung to action. They declared their positions untenable due to the level of political interference exerted on their boss and quit.

MATT made it clear that it stood ‘in solidarity with our colleagues in the media and the executives who have supported them.’ Only MATT was still standing in the Guardian newsroom while its ace reporters were on the streets feeling a tad confused by their silence.

Gabriel Faria, it turned out, had not quit at all. Guardian was in damage limitation mode and, as Raymond herself suggested, cautious optimism had replaced concerned monitoring.

The post continued:

Raymond never said what Guardian offered to her and Shepherd by way of compromise. They did not clear up the inconsistencies between their statements of political interference and the rebuttals from Faria and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

On Saturday, a MATT release admitted to publishing ‘erroneous information’ but said that was in reference to Faria’s resignation rather than the charge of editorial pressure from board level. The irony was especially juicy since Faria had accused Raymond’s staff of being lax in corroborating information before publishing.

Renne and Gumbs-Sandiford were said to be back on the job too and the whole was described as ‘a massive miscommunication between the publishers and journalists.’

So, the story had a happy ending after all.

Unless you happened to be Rampersad who has now discovered that MATT’s support is not worth the paper that its emailed releases are not printed on.

Critical blog posts just kept on coming. Plain Talk suggested that:

If the Media Association of T&T wants to have any real relevance post ‘Guardian-Drama’ they are going to have to ask that, at the very least, both the president and the vice president do the right thing and step down. While it may not undo the damage already done, it could facilitate beginning the process of frank and open discussions as to what exactly transpired.

What the Guardian does from here is Guardian business and they are welcome to it, but it is my belief that they are going to lose a lot of ground over the naked perversion and the still unanswered questions as to what exactly took place last Wednesday.

The Eternal Pantomime added:

Trinbagonians pretty pissed off with the Guardian newspaper…they feel they have been taken for a ride…and no amount of soft soaping from the Editor in Chief, or even from her Business News Editor, is going to make the reading public feel good anytime soon. No one is going to forget your behaviour this week, or what it means for our confidence in media and press freedom.

In a follow-up post uploaded yesterday, Bharath referred to “the MATT who cried wolf” and called the whole debacle “a hoax”:

We’re being told today…that ALLLLLL those press releases [MATT] sent out earlier in the week to keep us abreast of the situation in the Guardian newsroom…well they were mistaken.

So MATT, once again, is a tool, being absolutely abused by its executive. Nothing to see here folks…move along.

Blogger Attillah Springer, who is also a columnist at the Guardian, also posted her assessment of the situation yesterday:

I’ve been trying since Wednesday to find the words to say to make sense of this Guardian folly. I’ve never felt like the Guardian was the bastion of free press, I’ve read enough of its archive to know that…the Guardian guards not democracy but the status quo, the elite power structures that keep some of us as masters and the rest of us as slaves.

People like me find a space in newspapers like the Guardian, because it fits their profile to appear to fair and balanced. Yet I’ve had several occasions during my time as a columnist when I have had my right to fair comment compromised or threatened.

She proceeded to give examples of such occasions, and continued:

The media needs a lot of scrutiny. As much if not more than the government. A free press and a functional government go hand in hand and it is becoming more and more obvious that we have neither. And MATT is not the watchdog it should be. If it was, this country would have been shut down the moment Sheila Rampersad, Denyse Renne and Anika Sandiford-Gumbs decided to pick up their jahaaji bundle and ride out. Or when Fazeer Mohammed got removed from First Up. Or when Uncle Jack threatened Denyse Renne and Asha Javeed.

But I guess MATT and the media are made up of citizens like the rest of us. You know, who have a mortgage. And 2.5 children. And long hard days. And hours in traffic.

And if nobody else is willing to, why should journalists sacrifice themselves for the nation’s entertainment?

She then broke the whole controversy down to one key issue:

The question of who stays and who goes is not the question. The question is who is keeping all of us accountable to each other? And if one person falls on their sword who is going to put up money to make sure they can buy groceries at the end of the month?

The stress and confusion and the lack of the full story created in the last couple days has exactly the desired effect of distracting us what from is really happening and that is the looting not just of the Treasury but our bank of collective responsibility.

Once at the beginning of my time as a reporter an editor told me my only role was to fill space and meet deadlines. I couldn’t reconcile that with what I imagined a journalist to be. I’m reminded of that ridiculous speech when I hear Gabriel Faria, followed by the about turn by MATT three days after they claimed that freedom of the press was under siege.

A journalist is no use without an audience. A newspaper can’t sell without journalists. They need us as much as we need them but somehow the power relationship is skewed and the journalists end up feeling like media owners are doing them a favour.

I have a conscience and this is what it has been shouting at me since Wednesday: No compromise. They are threatening people’s livelihoods and that is not just madness it is criminal.

No compromise. This is war and if all citizens aren’t prepared to fight we might as well lie down and dead.

Yet, compromise seems to be what has happened. Georgia Popplewell, in a public Facebook status update, tried to consider the situation from another perspective:

I do understand why walking appears to many who have commented on the situation be the only honourable response, and I'm certainly not condemning those who have chosen to resign front he paper: under the circumstances I might well have done the same. I'm deeply concerned about corporate greed, censorship and government interference in the media and I'll be boycotting the Guardian and CNC3 like the rest of you.

Still, we rarely hear—or listen to—the story of those who DON'T walk. This is not a defence of Judy Raymond (who also happens to be a friend) but a—perhaps naive—wish for a dispassionate examination of the situation. I'd love to see some attention given to that other option: what it's like to remain in the belly of the beast and “give it one last try”, as Judy is quoted as saying in this morning's Express article (http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/BETRAYAL-215173831.html), even in a place as allegedly odious as ANSA McAL. And not just by people who support or like Judy, but by people who support good journalism and rational discussion. If getting rid of troublemakers is what, we assume, ANSA McAL wants, might staying, even with a reduced portfolio, be a courageous position? Can we imagine what it could be like to fight from the inside? Are corporate behemoths unbeatable by definition?

As Singing Francine sang, ‘Chile does run away/Dog does run away/Cat does run away/When man treatin’ dem bad.’ But what about those who stay? Where's their calypso? Maybe we'll end up booing it off the stage, but I still want to hear it. ‪#‎Trinidad

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