Saturday, November 08, 2008

Invalid persons

So on 25 October, just four days after Reporters Without Borders released its 2008 Press Freedom Index--in which Trinidad and Tobago slipped eight places down from our 2007 ranking--Mr. Manning took such visceral offence to the on-air comments of a couple of radio journalists that he swooped down upon the 94.1 FM office, with all the security detail commesse that prime ministerial dignity apparently requires, to make a personal complaint to the station management. The two journalists were swiftly suspended.

What were the vicious and scandalous comments that so roused Mr. Manning's righteous ire? Today's Express helpfully publishes a transcript. They had the nerve to--drumroll--criticise the government's gasoline pricing policy, and mock Mr. Manning's suggestion that cars be converted to run on CNG.

Prime ministerial dignity, it seems, is a delicate and fragile thing. Mr. Manning was "aggrieved", he said. His rights as a citizen were trampled on. Worse, this kind of criticism by the media, Mr. Manning said at a press conference two days ago, could even bring the country to its knees:

... too many of the commentators either in the newspapers, or in the media or on the radio, do not respect our institutions. It is a question of being disrespectful to institutions and authority, and pursuing a course of action that could cause the image of these institutions and individuals to be tarnished in the minds of those in whose interest they are set up to serve, and therefore they could become completely non-effective. That is the risk that we run.

Never mind that many citizens would say the institutions and individuals of the Manning government are already "completely non-effective" at solving the real and urgent problems facing the country. Forget the murder rate, the babies dying in hospitals, the near-permanent gridlock of the country's transport infrastructure, the power outages and water lock-offs, the widespread belief in massive corruption and fraud at high levels of government, the secret new constitution now being drafted that will consolidate executive power, etc etc etc etc. What we really need to worry about, Mr. Manning seems to believe--and he even seems hurt that we don't agree--is a free press.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association have rightly--and forcefully--objected. Today's Guardian and Newsday run strongly worded editorials criticising Mr. Manning's stance. Georgia Popplewell at Caribbean Free Radio has weighed in. Taran Rampersad at KnowProSE lists his concerns in an open letter to the prime minister.

But the real question here is even more fundamental than freedom of the press and all citizens' freedom of expression. In a letter printed in today's Express, C. Peters says: "It may do Mr. Manning well to remember that prime ministership is leadership and not ownership." In her column in today's Guardian, Attillah Springer makes a similar point:

We can't imagine ourselves ever as anything else but good slaves, doing massa's bidding. We can't bear the threat of the threat of massa's whip coming down on our backs.... We can't be anything that is not expected of us. Loyal servants, with ready smiles and words of praise.

Mr. Manning's radio station raid is yet one more reminder--as if, Lord, we needed another--that in Trinidad and Tobago democracy is not a practice but a concept, and a concept that we still, forty-six years after independence, do not really understand, much less believe in. In a representative democracy--the form of government we claim--the people's representatives, our members of Parliament, and the prime minister chosen from among them, have the duty of acting in the people's interest. Instead--with the help of a constitution which already concentrates too much power in the executive's hands, a system of tribal politics that is destructive of clear thought, and a succession of politicians enamoured of the trappings of power--we are lorded over by an administration which seems to believe it is the people's duty to act in the government's interest.

Mr. Manning has demonstrated over and again his disdain for criticism--however useful, however well meant--whether it comes from the media, the public at large, or even from within his own party. The 94.1 incident is perhaps not even the most serious example we've witnessed of late. I have no doubt that the Trinidad and Tobago media, backed up by their regional colleagues, will face down Mr. Manning's threats of personal and legal action against journalists by whom he feels "aggrieved". But who among us is facing up to the bigger and deeper crisis, the bankruptcy of "democracy" as a meaningful idea and principle and practice in twenty-first-century Trinidad and Tobago?

Because we are all responsible.

More than three decades ago, Martin Carter summed up his social and political ideal for the Caribbean as "a free community of valid persons."

I have never in my life felt so pessimistic about us merely understanding this ideal, much less achieving it.


Anonymous said...

It's dangerous territory, there is no doubt. But in dangerous territory, one marks one's words carefully and offers the olive branch before the sword. Or the pen, for that matter.

So while it is easy to paint conclusions by number, a process must be gone through properly to ascertain the *why*, the *how*, and so forth. Visceral reactions, no matter how rationalized, remain visceral reactions... and the Prime Minister is not the only one to have visceral reactions.

Of course, it scores cool points. But cool points do not solve situations... or clarify them... or present the reality of the situation.

Anonymous said...

It's a dangerous situation. So does this mean (in PM eyes) that only he has the right to say what he feels because he is the P.Minister? And those that elected him to office (the suspended broadcasters may have voted for him) do not have the right to freedom of speech?
This is an extremely grim situation. When the media cannot report waht the want and feel and there is no freedon of speech, it's not a democracy anymore, it's dictatorship!!!

Mr. Prime Minister, if you do not wish for you, your party, ministers, member of parliament, institutions etc.. to be critizised please either step down or do a better job, ESPECIALLY in the HEALTH and EDUCATION sectors, where the situation is truly PATHETIC and a shame to this country!!!

When in a country a citizen cannot find proper health care, when a citizen has to wait 4 or 5 months for an appointment @ Mt Hope so thier child can be seen by a Doctor and after arriving at that appointment @ Mt. Hope having been there from 6.a.m. and being attended to a 2.p.m. and having to listen to a Mt. Hope doctor boooofffff the parents and calling them ungrateful because in thier desperation, they have been seeking aid for thier sick child and have visited a number of other doctors and NGO's in order for thier child to live, to have A doctor from Mt Hope humiliate them is very UNCALLED for.
So, Mr. Manning are you going to come here and have me suspended?? I promise you, if a better job was carried out by you, your ministers, members of parliament, institutions etc... we would not be critizicing you and your lot, we would be commenting on the good that you and your lot are doing for the country!!!

euphoria said...

I've been turning this over all day and wondering what it will take for Trinidadians to become really angry.. I am outraged.
All my life I grew up with really untenable situations: Randolph Borroughs and the Flying Squad, the perpetual election of Eric Williams and now this dangerous, unstable (as recent events have bourne out) PM. All of these were greeted by a steups, laughter and attention quickly turned elsewhere. This is not the reaction that will adequately address something of this magnitude.
I haven't lived in Trinidad for a decade, so I'd like to have more of a sense of what the mood is on the ground. And who were the two announcers involved?? I don't get this overly cautious colonial journalism.
Additionally, while I mostly agree with Taran, I disagree with his take on visceral reactions. How can you prevent yourself from a visceral reaction to what is clearly wrong? And it strikes me that giving Manning a break when he's clearly not doing the same for anyone else, not even paying lip service to the law, is not common sense. This little stunt was only a first foray. He is testing the waters for a Papa Doc move. And if Trinidadians are as placid as I recall, he will get his way.

Anonymous said...

late to the show but i just want to say that where freedom of speech is a fundamental right, the last person who should be trodding on that right is the prime minister! we are no longer a democracy if his actions can cause suspension, or even rationalisation. we are now the banana republic of our lord in chief, the ever humble but most puissant manning.

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, it obviously sets a worrying precedent, and it also reflects poorly on the PM (but what doesn't?).

On the other, though, what struck me about this was just how bush-league a reaction it was. Say what you will about Bas -- at lesat he had the class to deal with his enemies in the press from afar, using his rhetoric and thinly veiled threats. The idea of a Prime Minister barging into the station is just too petty and stupid for me to really comprehend. Maybe I' just too optimistic, but to me all it made clear is that Manning is too small a man to ever really be a threat.

But, you know, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, etc.