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Taking Stock of Our Democracy

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 16, 2010

Everyone remembers when Justice Herbert Volney bus' it and became the victorious representative of the people of St. Joseph. One day he was a justice of the court the next day he was a UNC candidate. Although Sat Maharaj pointed out that other members of the judiciary had ties to politics and politicians the Volney bomb touched a delicate part of the nation. We made a lot of noise about Volney's defection but everyone in Trinidad and Tobago – the country that God has especially blessed – knows everything is a one-day wonder. Folks made noise about his ethical nature of the defection but soon it was yesterday's news.

The prime minister was ecstatic when Volney joined her party. At one of her meetings she declared: "Imagine what it took for him to leave behind his career as a judge. He will be leaving all his years of study. He may open himself to ridicule simple because he chose to put Trinidad and Tobago before his own needs. It shows the desperate need to remove Mr. Manning from office. Even members of the Judiciary are standing up for their country" (Newsday, April 29).

She was correct. Many people gave up many things to join the PP's bandwagon to remove the PNM. Now that the PP is in power esteemed members of the press have jumped ship to demonstrate that they too "are standing up for their country." Andy Johnson is the latest defector. He will become the chief officer of the Government Information Services and will be "an official part of the Government's delegation" to the United Nations next week.

Johnson's defection follows Clevon Raphael's elevation to special adviser and "right hand man" to the Attorney General. The AG called him "a distinguished journalist and someone for whom I've had the greatest respect." Just to demonstrate that he had learned his lines well Raphael uttered the identical sentiments his Prime Minister uttered when Justice Volney jumped into her party. Says Raphael: "It's a major challenge but I see this job as my contributing to national development...but in a different way. I see everything I do, I do in the name of my country."

Such patriotic sentiments are touching but one wonders if Andy or Clevon or Francis Joseph or Ken Ali – all distinguished members of the media – ever gave any thought to their responsibilities, nay obligations, as members of the Fourth Estate. We are told that Andy and Joseph have been working for Jack Warner's Ministry since August and that Ali handled the press releases for the Prime Minister's Office during the Government's Tobago's retreat. This leads us to ask: who is the next member of the Fourth Estate that will express their full-throttled patriotism by serving the Third Estate.

I am sure their remuneration was a consideration since they will receive bigger emoluments from the Government than they received from the previous employers. That's all to the good. But I wonder how the public sees their massive jumping over to the government and how does it affect the public's perception of the media in our country?

Whereas previously it was thought that press persons were neutral when they reported and interpreted the news, now we are told that they really supported the policies and programs of the present government. As full-time advocates of the government they will give full-throated praises to the wonders of Kamla and the PP which leads one to believe that when Patrick Manning and the PNM were telling the country that the press was not as neutral as they declared they were not totally off the mark.

When members of the public accused the media of bias against the PNM they were told they were simple reporting the news–no bias, just facts. In light of the recent action of these journalists I am not sure the press could be so categorical in their denial of whose interest they (or their reporters) serve. Even though the jumping of these journalists into government service does not in and of itself demonstrate media bias their massive exodus – to use the Guardian's words – does not speak well for our media nor is it a salutary sign of things to come.

The press plays a vital role in strengthening our democracy and promoting good governance. It acts as a watchdog of the public interest. We, as a public, grant them certain rights and freedoms to insure that they ferret out wrong doing and expose the malfeasance of office holders. We also expect them to promote government's accountability. However when we hear that the persons who said they dedicated themselves to the public good become advocates for the very persons and policies they were supposed to watching over then we have to shake our heads and ask how believable are these gentlemen.

There is evidence that where newspaper circulation is high electoral accountability is greater and wrong doing by public officials is less likely to occur. Where newspapers are thought to be neutral (or certainly less bias) the public's belief in the democratic process is greatly enhanced. In other words, if the public believes that the newspaper is acting in their interest then they are more likely to place greater faith in their reportage, interpretations and commentaries.

Correspondingly, the more the media seem to be support or contribute to the maintenance of existing governments (or autocratic regimes) the more the public is likely to lose faith in their leavening role. So even though these journalists seem to be defecting to the government on their own free will it does not necessarily reflect well on the media as a whole. Under the circumstances it is difficult to convince the public that it is not in cahoots (or its reporters were not in cahoots) with the party they left to serve and more importantly that they, as journalists, carried out their responsibility fairly.

I do not disparage any of these reporters who have abandoned their profession and to serve the powers that be. I am not too sure that any one would ever be able to take them seriously again. But then that is the price one pays when one abandons one's profession and gives the impression that one was never serious in the first place.

Let us hope that their actions do not diminish the strength and vitality of our democracy.

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