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Friday 24 May 2019
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Al-Rawi vs the media

Carla Bridglal
Carla Bridglal

AN INDEPENDENT media’s role in a democratic society is to maintain checks and balances on authority. It’s hardly surprising, then, when politicians have inimical attitudes to the role and duty of the press—like Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi’s heated media conference on Friday where he chastised the media for not covering the news the way he wanted.

Al-Rawi had called the media conference to clarify concerns in the public domain about the Income Tax (Amendment) Bill, the Criminal Division Act and refugee policy, but during the question and answer session, instead of directly responding to reporters’ questions, a fiery Al Rawi sought to interrogate and lecture the media on their poor analytical skills.

“I urge you not to be reporters, I urge you to be journalists. Journalists go out and analyse the issues in a meaningful way,” Al-Rawi said.

But asked to clarify a point about the country’s lack of a refugee policy, the AG snapped, “Are you ready for that? What’s your view? How are your taxpayer dollars going to be used? Have you done a poll on that? Have you commissioned a poll as you do on politicians? You’re busy polling the popularity of politicians? Why don’t you poll how we operationalise the law?”

Attorney Faris Al-Rawi addressing a media conference at the Ministry of Legal Affairs, Port of Spain on November 5. file photo

Al-Rawi then asked if it was unreasonable for him to put that question to the press. In the context—a press conference—perhaps, yes. But he raises a point that journalists understand and are already internally grappling with—stretched resources that inevitably restrict the profession to produce “he said, she said” reportage, at the expense of the truly analytical stories that the public sometimes needs in order to make informed decisions.

Yes, the media can do better. Where the AG faltered though, is his execution. The AG lambasted journalists for not following these critically important stories without analysis, apparently missing the numerous reports, editorials and analyses that have been written on these topics over the years—long before they became pressing issues in the public.

Al-Rawi also attempted to shift the blame of the government’s lack of preparedness and hesitation to deal with an escalating situation like asylum seekers and refugees to the media’s ignorance on the topic—lately international law. He went so far in his tirade to question the Media Association’s choice of lawyer as it advocates against the passage of Cybercrime legislation without a public interest exemption, Dr Emir Crowne, who has been one of Al-Rawi’s most vocal critics in the way he handles refugee legislation.

“Do you think it unreasonable for me to ask that? Which one of you have reported the issues (in an analytical) way and been journalists and not just reporters? ‘He say, she say… Crowne say Al-Rawi say.’ Come on guys, our country has to do better. This is not the game for politicians only,” Al-Rawi said.

Yet Al-Rawi’s criticism of the media shirking its responsibilities— a sentiment that not he alone shares— lacks serious context at best, disingenuous at worst. Since early this year, local media has been covering the influx of Venezuelan economic migrants and refugees seeking to enter TT as they flee increasing hardships like lack of jobs, hyperinflation and medicine shortages in their country. It was the media’s pressure on the Ministry of National Security that forced them to release a statement on this country’s “repatriation” of 82 Venezuelans, including that some of those sent back had apparently applied for asylum while here. All while the state refuses to acknowledge there’s an intensifying situation even as it signs the Dragon gas deal with Venezuela.

And more than two years ago, at the height of the FATCA debate—and long before the AG’s “FATCA on steroids” definition—reporters had already begun pointing out that groups like the Bankers’ Association had considered Global Forum and FATF compliance more important for the sector.

And despite not being able to produce polls, which can be expensive in a time when media houses are reporting declining revenues and even losses, the media still manages to maintain its role as the “fourth estate,” as a check and balance to power.

Just this year, the media was the first to highlight TT’s decision to vote against Dominica at the Orgainisation of American States, as well as allegations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety at the Sport Ministry that led the firing of then-minister Darryl Smith and the questionable acquisition of a luxury apartment by then-National Security Minister Edmund Dillion. Investigative reports also led to a Securities and Exchange Commission hearing into Jamaican giant NCB Financial Group’s take-over bid for Guardian Holdings Ltd.

Reporters still manage to do their job, despite a lack of information forthcoming from the government, its officials and agencies. Freedom of Information Requests can take months, even years, process, and reporters regularly complain of late or non-existent responses from government communications units. To their credit, though, most government ministers and members of the Opposition are fairly easy to reach—although reporters still have to contend with selective responses.

Al-Rawi is in no way the only politician to find fault with the media, nor will he be the last. The media will persist, and despite it all, understands its privilege and how lucky it is to be in a position to report freely and independently, despite the challenges. They can also accept their need to do better. Typos, misspellings, misstated facts are all sins that undermine the integrity and trustworthiness of the profession. The media makes mistakes, and are willing to learn from them. But just as the AG “respectfully” asks the media to step up to the plate, politicians need to understand the role and duty of a free press.

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