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Raffique Shah


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Don't shoot the messenger

January 23, 2005
By Raffique Shah

WHAT a difference one week can make. Last Sunday, when I wrote about the unacceptable state of crime in the country, trying to bring home some harsh realities to National Security Minister Martin Joseph, he had just demanded apologies from the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald over a story both newspapers featured about the high crime rate in this country. By Thursday last, the US and UK governments had issued advisories on their websites warning visitors to T&T about the high crime rate, and more chilling, the murder of a German national who had taken up residence here. Instead of the situation improving, it has further deteriorated.

Minister Joseph may well argue that murders declined last week-down to five or whatever, from nine or ten the previous week. That is of little comfort to the average citizen, and not exactly the kind of news that would prompt more foreigners to rush here for Carnival. Before I get into the meat of why our people feel they are under siege, I need to give Minister Joseph some free advice on handling adverse media reports, especially when they appear in the foreign Press or television.

Once the basic facts of the story are correct, which they were in this case, then don't bother even to comment on the article. To demand, not request, apologies, is to invite the kind of media-contempt that would make the Minister look like a fool. Those newspapers will not apologise, even though the reporter had some of her information wrong.

I'm sure the newspapers in question ignored the Minister, which, if anything, would give even more credence to the story. But the reporter did have some of her data incorrect and drew some wrong conclusions. For example, when she said that kidnappings have become epidemic, that we have the second highest rate in the world after Colombia, a reader can conclude that kidnappers are snatching people at random, more than one-a-day, making the country an extremely dangerous one.

Had she checked her facts, she will have found that even though on a per capita basis we may rank high, the total number of kidnappings and their frequency pale by comparison with not just Colombia, but Mexico, Malaysia, the Phillipines, and many more countries where "abductions" are rampant.

Did she try to find out how many people, mainly women and children, went "missing" in the USA over the past few years? Were they abducted? Were they kidnapped? Maybe she should do an investigative piece on the organised sex-slave trade in her own country, or in countries like Cambodia where the government collaborates with the sex-slaves gangsters..

She was on target regarding the political clout the Jamaat al Muslimeen seems to have, and its perceived links with criminal activities. She was also correct when she said that most victims are Indo-Trinis, in the main the wealthy. What she failed to unearth-and this is the hallmark of good investigative journalism-is that many of the victims of kidnappings are themselves involved in crime, big crime. Many may have "sanitised" themselves, now clothed as "successful businessmen".

But who knows how much "blood money" got them there? There were several cases in which the victims dealt closely with criminal elements, like buying from them stolen vehicles, computers, cameras and most of all jewelry.

There is at least one case I can think of in which a family built up a virtual business empire on stolen vehicles. How many victims were dispossessed or maimed or killed in the process was of no consequence to them. Today, if they are touched by criminals they cry foul. And worse (or better, in their case), the elite in society think nothing of rubbing shoulders with them, of patronising them instead of ostracising them.

She also wrote: Jamaat members are seldom denied bail, even on murder charges! A cursory check will have told her that could not be true: murder is a non-bailable offence in this country, unlike the US where only first-degree murder is non-bailable. Her informant obviously did not know the difference between "conspiracy to murder" and straight murder.

Again, another glaring error in the story: Abu Bakr and his associates are on trial for conspiracy to murder stemming from the assassination of a state witness in the (Saran) Kissoondan kidnapping case. Huh? Hamid Ghany is quoted saying that he believes the Jamaat has ties with "an international network such as Al Qaeda". Maybe, maybe not. But surely Ghany should take any such vital intelligence he has to the police, or if he does not trust them, to the DPP or Chief Justice.

The reporter, Carol Williams, kept quoting Indo-Trinis referring to the criminals as "blacks". That is an American term for "negro" or "Afro-Trini". So her report was flawed on many counts, some of them very critical to a reader really trying to understand what's happening here, others plain shoddy reporting. I am not suggesting her story was a fabrication.

As journalists we often make errors. We are not infallible. Minister Joseph should focus on the facts, not the flaws in the article. But he and Prime Minister Patrick Manning seem to take comfort in the errors, to wave them about as if that would magically lower the crime rate. In other words, kill the messenger and the message may die with her.

But the "message" is a chilling one that won't vanish, abracadabra-style. Late last week, a worker employed by a contractor went to pay some bills in San Fernando, from where he was apparently abducted, murdered, and later his body and vehicle were found in far-off Blanchisseuse. There is nothing to suggest in this case that Jules Farrel was anything but an ordinary citizen. Three days before that a URP foreman was chased and stabbed to death in broad daylight on South Quay.

The presence of police in the vicinity (they actually held two of the alleged killers), or the crowds of people milling around, did not deter the men. But I'll tell you this: when victims are connected to the crime-ridden URP that successive governments have failed to dismantle, I cannot, as in the Farrel case, say Vincent Maule was without sin. Maybe he was an innocent man, maybe not.

The one that is symptomatic of the level to which crime has sunk is the murder in Diego Martin of Klemis McCarthy. According to reports, the victim and members of his family had attended a "meeting" at which he had sought to clear his name of a murder that took place last year. After he "pleaded" innocent and was walking back home, he was ambushed by two gunmen who shot him repeatedly until he fell dead.