In Trinidad and Tobago, the sudden replacement of an outspoken television talk show host has sparked public outcry and raised questions about the future of the country's publicly owned media resources. The removal of popular and widely respected broadcast media personality Fazeer Mohammed from the 'First Up' early morning talk show on state-owned Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG) cable television channel, has triggered mounting criticism against the political administration. The circumstances surrounding Mohammed's removal have called into question the motive for his sudden replacement. And respected voices are now calling for national discussion about the role of an independent and healthy media in a democratic nation.
Veteran journalist Sunity Maharaj has described the situation as "a powerful opportunity" to discuss and debate the future of the state-owned CNMG. Maharaj is calling on all interests, especially those in the creative sector—including independent producers, media practitioners, educators, cultural activists and entities and civil society groups—to engage in nationwide discussion on the underlying issues.
Mohammed removed from First Up
The background to the call for countrywide consideration of these fundamental issues is Mohammed's removal from the programme on November 6, via a telephone call from CNMG personnel acting on instructions from the company's new interim CEO, Ken Ali, who had assumed headship of the company only days before, on October 27. Mohammed is among a number of public figures whose services to CNMG are now discontinued.
Mohammed's removal came two days after he interviewed Foreign Affairs Minister Surujrattan Rambachan on the morning show, on Thursday 4 November. During the interview, Mohammed asked the Foreign Affairs Minister about certain statements made by Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar with regard to delivering hurricane relief to Caribbean neighbours who had been hit by Hurricane Tomas the week before.
Hurricane Tomas: Sting in the tail
Rambachan had been approached by Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, with a request for assistance in the reconstruction of several hundred homes damaged by the hurricane. Persad-Bissessar's said her proposal would be that "whatever money/assistance is given redounds back in some measure to the people of Trinidad and Tobago".
Those statements by PM Persad-Bissessar triggered strong backlash from local and the regional media. By November 10, a group called "Boycott on goods made in Trinidad" had been created on social networking site Facebook, but it did not generate a strong response, as opinion remains divided on the matter. The Prime Minister initially stood by her statement but later apologised. (Opposition leader Keith Rowley also issued an apology for his own comments, but we digress.) Back to Mohammed and Rambachan.
A partial transcript of the conversation between Mohammed and Rambachan, posted in the Trinidad Express, picks up the interview after Mohammed questions Rambachan about whether Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s comments about conditional assistance to victims of Tomas were made in a diplomatic way.
The difference between state-owned and government-run is...
As a replacement for Mohammed, the CNMG CEO has named Andy Johnson, who is also the new interim CEO of Government Information Services Limited (GISL), a Trinidad and Tobago Government-run media company whose core roles include "the provision of common communication services to agencies within the government".
Johnson, a former talk show host of rival early morning TV programme 'Morning Edition' at TV6, had taken up duties as interim GISL CEO only a few days before being asked to replace Mohammed. However, after one week, Johnson walked off the job. TV6, a One Caribbean Media (OCM) cable television station, has since indicated that Mohammed is to become a co-host on Morning Edition by January 2011.
Both Johnson and Ali report directly to the PM Persad-Bissessar. The series of events has caused uproar throughout the country and is perceived by some as evidence of unwarranted Government interference in the media.
Sunity Maharaj said that CNMG and GISL, despite being separate legal entities with completely different mandates, have been effectively, if not legally, merged.
"The evidence of this is the ease with which the interim CEO of CNMG (Ken Ali) has assumed the role of government information employee in travelling with the PM to New York, while the CEO of GISL (Andy Johnson) is seconded to CNMG as a talk show host," she said.
Former Independent Senator Dana Seetahal said that "the immediate concern must in my view be, what is the head of the Government Information Services Ltd (GISL) doing hosting a talk show on a television station? The GISL is "primarily involved in the provision of media services to the Government and its agencies" according to its website. It is a State-owned limited liability company that commenced operations in 2007. "C" is the flagship television station of the Caribbean New Media Group, a state-run media company in Trinidad and Tobago. It commenced operations in June 2006, six months after the demise of its predecessor, TTT.
Both are state-owned companies but they are separate entities. One is clearly designed to promote Government news whereas the other is meant to be an independent media station that just happens to be owned by the State. Whereas state agencies can control the information coming out of GISL which is designed to showcase the Government in a positive light, the same ought not to be true of CNMG. Now that Andy Johnson is co-hosting a talk show on CNMG, however, the lines are becoming blurred. Will he seek to promote the Government in a positive light as is his mandate as head of GISL or will he really entertain other views?
There are other areas of concern. We have a case of a CEO, an employee of a company (be it State-owned or not) filling in, whether temporarily or not, as an employee in another company — both providing similar services. Is there not an obvious conflict of interest here? And does Andy Johnson, CEO of GISL in his guise as talk show host, employee of CNMG, take instructions from the CEO of CNMG? Do the rules of each company allow for this?"
Issue is not religion, but media
Among the Muslim population, some felt that Mohammed's dismissal was an an act of discrimination because of Mohammed's religious beliefs. On November 10, several members of the nation's muslim community participated in a civil protest in front of CNMG's office on Maraval Road in Port of Spain.
Reports on the Barbados Daily Herald, the CARICOM Single Market Entity website and the Knight Centre for Journalism in the Americas website indicated that Mohammed's removal had angered the Muslim community, forcing them to break their silence over what they claimed were months of discrimination against them by the People's Partnership Government.
Other commentators, however, point out that the issue is not religion but the media itself.
The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago was among the first to respond to the issue, and they have penned an open letter to PM Persad-Bissessar condemning Mohammed's removal "as a measure which amounts to an attack on the freedom of the press".
"We have also noted with concern recurrent incidents over the years in which the broadcast facilities at CNMG and its predecessors have been used, particularly during election periods, to the advantage of whichever party is in power. Over many years, successive administrations have been responsible for unwarranted attempts to intimidate and muzzle journalists and media practitioners," the MATT letter stated.
The Association did not fail to mention that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are clearly articulated fundamental constitutional rights of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, and it called on the Prime Minister to honour her commitment to the freedom of the press.
MATT has started an online petition calling on the Government to clear the air on the CNMG/GISL issue.
Storm in a teacup
In the face of mounting criticisms, PM Persad-Bissessar addressed the media at a press conference at the Piarco International Airport, moments after she returned from a US trip where she had held bilateral discussion with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The PM dismissed claims that Mohammed’s removal from CNMG’s First Up morning programme was politically motivated or an act of religious persecution. She said that Mohammed's removal from the programme was part of the company's ongoing attempts to realign competencies and cut costs. Persad-Bissessar added that several other employees at the State-owned company have been subjected to similar changes. Minister Ramabachan also answered a question at the press conference, and later made this further statement on firing of Fazeer Mohammed.
Mohammed was not really the first up
Responding to his own removal, Mohammed said that this was not the first time that a ruling government had acted to mute a dissenting voice.
"Whether it's a plot or not, it's almost par for the course for governments to try to sideline or remove people who they don't like and that is the unfortunate consequence of having politicians who don't recognise the role of independent thought," Mohammed said in an Aabida Allaham interview, published in the Trinidad Express.
This i95.5FM radio interview includes full-length reponses from Mohammed to questions about the his beliefs about the motivation behind his removal from the First Up programme.
CNMG CEO Ken Ali has made this statement on Mohammed's removal (CNMG report).
Other prominent and political figures have added their voices (and silence) to the issue, including Opposition Senator, Fitzgerald Hinds; Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary, Orville London; and THA Minority Leader, Ashworth Jack.
Dr Hamid Ghany, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of the West Indies (UWI) has also spoken out on the issue.