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Media watchdog role more important now

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What is the role and responsibility of media in this interregnum, the pre-election period when the Parliament is out and there is lacking effective supervision of government spending and decision-making?

This was the question the Union Club asked me to address to its members last Friday. While I discussed in conversational form the subject with very rich questioning and observations from members, this column reflects the detail of the notes I made for the conversation.

The invitation to a journalist to make such propositions to the Union Club, an historic institution of commercial and social power which dates back to 1878, is indicative of the Club’s understanding that there has been a shift/evolution of political and societal power.

It is a recognition by the corporate world that media and by extension media audiences have the capacity to exert power on a government when the balancing restraint of Parliament is not in place. 

Undoubtedly, journalists in their roles as reporters and columnists have an even greater responsibility to monitor, report and analyse the exercise of power by a government in this extended period when the voice of the opposition to sound the bell on government misspending and the like is not being heard in the institutional frame for such scrutiny, the Parliament.

In the early post-colonial period when the People’s National Movement exercised almost total power and when the opposition was fragmented and weak, Bro Valentino (the People’s Calypsonian) sang “the calypsonian is the only true opposition.” That still has validity. However over the last 20 years of media expansion and the pursuit of a more aggressive and investigative agenda, they are now the true interrogators of the government; the society can no longer wait for the calypso tents to open. 

Undoubtedly, the need for monitoring, investigating and exposing wrong-doing by government is at perhaps its highest point since independence. Religious and social leaders such as Catholic Archbishop, His Grace Joseph Harris, the Inter-religious Organisation, high court judges, retired head of the public service Reginald Dumas, former Central Bank deputy governor Dr Terrence Farrell have, in different ways, talked about the decay of the society and its “moral and spiritual values.”

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has fired and or dispensed with the services of perhaps a dozen of her ministers. In more than a few of the instances it has been an admission by her of serious deficiencies in their conduct. 

Her former right-hand man in cabinet has been “bussing” serious allegations against her and her alleged unsuitability of character to be PM. 

In Parliament, the Government has brought serious allegations against Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley. He in turn has made startling allegations, yet to be authenticated or dismissed by the police. And for such bold attempts to defame the Prime Minister and trusted cabinet ministers, PM Persad-Bissessar fired, with the willing assistance of Speaker Wade Mark, the Leader of the Opposition from the Parliament.

Inside and outside of the Parliament, the allegations of government corruption range from Reshmi, a clerk with a fraudulent resume, to head of intelligence; through the infamous Section 34, passed and instituted in the “dead of the night” when the country was celebrating 50 years of Independence; LifeSport; the attempt to foist a run-off bill on an electorate through to the legion of serious allegations of the present by Jack Warner against the PM and her cabinet, the indication is clear: the media have to function in the interest of informing citizens and giving them perspectives whether the Parliament is in session or not. 

The young investigative journalists have performed admirably. They have revealed and reported upon government scandals and opposition missteps. However, the demands on media are in this period even greater. There is still the possibility that the $400 million contract to construct the Curepe Interchange can be awarded in circumstances where there is no clear bid winner. 

In a political culture in which there is no tradition of a lame duck government recognising moral limits on its ability to spend, the requirements for an aggressive media trawling against wrongdoing is even greater. 

To be continued. 


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