PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Oct. 18, CMC – The media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders has called for the creation of an independent commission of enquiry into revelations that the confidential phone records of Anika Gumbs-Sandiford, a reporter with the Trinidad Guadian, were illegally passed onto a government agency here.
The organization has also expressed concerned about the effect of a smear operation against certain journalists and the government’s desire to force the privately-owned broadcast media to carry official announcements free of charge as in some Latin America countries, where they are called “cadenas.”
“An attempt was clearly made to violate the confidentiality of Anika Gumbs-Sandiford’s sources, although this is one of the cornerstones of freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The case recalls the one at the start of the year involving Newsday‘s Andre Bagoo, who was also investigating a conflict within a state institution
“In the present case, the authorities seem to have resorted to domestic espionage, which is all the more outrageous as Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s government publicly undertook to end such practices in 2010 leading to parliament’s adoption of the Interception of Communications Act
“How, under these circumstances, is a minimal degree of trust to be restored between the government and the media? The creation of an independent commission of enquiry is imperative.”
According to media reports, the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA), a state development agency, obtained Gumbs-Sandiford’s phone records from the state-owned Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) in an apparent bid to trace her source for an article published on September 9.
The story revealed that, in an unprecedented move, planning and development Bhoe Tewarie had overturned the CDA board’s decision to dispense with a law firm’s services for being too expensive, and that he was now trying to disband the board
Reporters Without Borders says the attempt to trace a journalist’s sources comes at a time of new tension between the government and many journalists critical of national security minister Jack Warner’s decision to deny the media access to government’s crime figures.
Against this backdrop, Reporters Without Borders has also taken note of a recent announcement from communication minister Jamal Mohammed in which he stated that all privately-owned broadcasters would be required to carry up to five minutes of government messages every hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. for no compensation.
“Such a measure is not in accordance with the requirements of pluralism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Its implementation would create the conditions for a media war and there is still time to stop this.”
Earlier this week the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) said it is “disturbed” at reports that Gumbs-Sandiford’s t were recently handed over to a state agency following the publication of an article.
According to MATT,the Constitution guarantees the right of the individual to respect for his private and family life and freedom of the press.
“The media are frequently the only means through which whistleblowers in both the public and private sectors are able to bring wrongdoing to light without risk to themselves. This is because the media have previously been able to guarantee the confidentiality of their sources.
“This confidentiality is now under threat, if private individuals are able to bypass the law and unearth the identity of such sources. If whistleblowers can no longer speak to the media in safety, then corruption, waste, mismanagement and many forms of injustice may go unchecked.
“The Media Association called for a full and rapid investigation by TSTT and the police, and for those involved to brought to justice if, as it appears, the law has been broken,” the media group said.