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Multiple Resignations at the Media Association of Trinidad & Tobago

Netizens who have been following developments in the Guardian newsroom controversy were looking forward to the new information that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago had promised to reveal at a press conference today. Instead, the big story has been the resignation of several journalists (most notably the Guardian's Editor in Chief, Judy Raymond) from the media association.

In today's edition of the paper, she explained:

In 2005 I resigned as acting editor of the T&T Guardian on a matter of principle…and I was sure it was the right thing to do. During the course of the last week, I spent several days considering leaving the Guardian again. But at no point was I certain that leaving would be the right decision. Before returning to the Guardian last March, I had spent two years talking to the managing director, Gabriel Faria, and other executives, about the prospect of going back.

When I eventually decided to accept the paper’s offer to lead the editorial department, I felt comfortable that things were different. The company now recognised that change was needed and the quality of the paper had to be lifted in a number of ways. During the last 15 months I have been supported by our MD and the board in building a very good team that I feel has the potential to be the best in the business.

We have been responsible for major stories on topics that include Section 34, the $6.8 million firetruck, the revived Flying Squad, Dr Hafizool Mohammed and the botched Sea Lots probe. During this period, the board has expressed concerns about political bias and accuracy. Both have been the subjects of lengthy and sometimes heated discussions with management. Last week I was asked to expand and complete a document outlining editorial policy and guidelines. Not an unreasonable proposal—but in order to do so, I was mandated to ‘go offline'—a phrase open to alarming interpretations.

In any media house there is always tension between the newsroom and the boardroom. Journalists are focused on reporting the news in the interest of the public; directors are concerned with the interests of shareholders. In 2013 we are working in a country with a politically overheated climate. Conspiracy theories abound, and paranoia is widespread. Press freedom must be especially zealously guarded in such circumstances.

Raymond's article revisited the sequence of events, in the context of claims that the company may have been vulnerable to political interference:

On Wednesday, I met with a group of senior editors to decide on a joint course of action, but the situation was still unclear. We agreed to wait for 24 hours. Reporters Denyse Renne and Anika Gumbs and public affairs editor Dr Sheila Rampersad, however, chose to tender their resignations immediately.

In fairness to the Guardian, throughout the week the company was open to talks and we had several meetings, including one painfully frank but mutually enlightening discussion with senior management last Thursday. At that meeting I listed the conditions under which I would agree to stay, and the company agreed to meet them. An important statistic was cited in that meeting: that the ANSA McAL group derives only two per cent of its revenue from government contracts.

This puts a completely different complexion on the belief that the group is vulnerable to political pressure. It also became apparent during that meeting that there had been a number of appalling misunderstandings and hasty judgments on both sides, some fuelled by misinformation and active mischief fed into the newsroom from external sources.

At that point, given the widespread belief that what was going on was a battle for press freedom, it would still have been easier for me to claim what appeared to be the moral high ground and leave. In the knowledge of the real circumstances, however, although it would have saved me much embarrassment and criticism, I don’t believe it would have been the right thing to do.

Finally, she offered some insight into her decision to stay in her post:

Journalism is not just a job. It goes beyond the contract one has with one’s employer. It also entails a commitment and obligation to the ethics of the profession, and to the public. I also have obligations to the newsroom team that I have the privilege to lead. If I left, other members of that team would also leave, and the work that we have been doing over the past year would come to an abrupt and premature end. I don’t believe anyone’s interests—not the newsroom’s, not the Guardian’s, not the country’s—would be best served by that.

As a journalist and as an executive member of the Media Association—a post from which I have now resigned—I have worked to promote press freedom and I am not going to betray that principle now. If I believed for a moment that there had been or would be any infringement of that freedom at the Guardian, or that my role as EIC were being curtailed, I would not have chosen to stay.

Following Raymond's announcement of her resignation from the vice-presidential post at the media association, many other journalists followed suit. The organisation's Facebook page posted a statement at 9 o'clock this morning:

The remaining members of the interim executive of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (Matt) have resigned with immediate effect.

As an interim executive, it was not possible to elect a new, fully functioning executive due to a very low turnout of media workers at out last general membership meeting. Our last act will be to convene another general membership meeting for the purpose of electing an executive.

The comments on the post were an interesting microcosm of the bigger issues playing out around the controversy. Blogger and social activist Phillip Edward Alexander noted that the first press release by MATT was signed by its executive; the retraction statement was not, but Alexander maintains that “the Executive stood behind this ‘telling’ of events”. He continued:

As of this morning…the entire MATT executive has resigned.
There does not appear to be an announced date for elections of a new executive.
No one knows who speaks for MATT now.
Neither MATT, nor the Trinidad Guardian nor Judy Raymond intend to host a press conference today or any other time soon on this matter.

So, the unanswered discrepancies between what took place Wednesday, what we were told took place from Wednesday to now and the situation at present want to be left in the dark.

The problem is though, this remains a freedom of the press issue as we are still no clearer despite the Guardian's Editor in Chief's well written commentary as to what really occurred and what really intervened to bring it to an end.

Mass resignations are not enough, someone has to be able to call an urgent MATT election or that organization will be the first casualty of a well crafted lie.

Secondly but more importantly, the Trinidad Guardian and all of the players in this fiasco need to make themselves available for a public press conference and answer these questions if the Guardian is to be trusted as a reliable source of information going forward.

Until this is done we will never really know if the biggest single attack against the freedom of the press in our history was allowed to go unreported.

Lasana Liburd called for accountability:

Who is the person that wrote the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago’s releases last week and suggested political interference at the Trinidad Guardian’s newsroom?
And who are the MATT officials who saw the releases and allowed/did not stop them from being published? How were those releases meant to be in defense of local journalists and the industry?

Don't slink away. Defend your positions and your work over the last week!

Columnist Ira Mathur reposted a status update from her personal Facebook page:

I'm sick of the pillorying of the MATT and journalists at the Guardian. Is this about resolution or about demonizing journalists and editors. Okay, everyone resigns at the Guardian, at MATT. Then what? Who is volunteering to run MATT? Is everyone okay with a bullet to democracy with a newspaper going under? I am not aware of political interference at the Guardian and I have written for the paper for years. Quite the opposite – especially since Judy Raymond's appointment it has grown into a fiercely independent paper, providing vital checks and balances in any democracy, playing its role as watch dog for the people brilliantly. The Guardian broke important stories, did great investigate work. I can't get over how much people want blood sport. Its not about building up but tearing down. My heart goes out to Judy Raymond and Suzanne C Sheppard, two of our countries finest editors and journalists. May they brave this storm. It takes much more courage to stay and work to take the pelting than to sink into silence.

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