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Raffique Shah


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Bulwarks of democracy

By Raffique Shah
Apr 12, 2015

Collectively, the so-called trolls on social media may be a pain in the rear for bona fide journalists and columnists in the mainstream media, operating as they do behind anonymity and bound by no rules of engagement or laws of libel and slander, while we have so many strictures, from word-count to sanitised lyrics, we write under the gun, in a manner of speaking.

And yes, it hurts when these mindless cowards spew their venom, delving into journalists’ private lives, distorting facts, promoting fiction and wallowing in half-truths. The current crop seems to have taken a fancy to attacking female writers, probably believing that they would drive their victims to tears, or worse, into depression.

Even so, I think my colleagues in the media are crediting the trolls with powers and influence they do not possess. They operate in an incestuous circle where they massage each other’s egos. Indeed, even if it is true that most of them are hired assassins paid for by State funds—and I find that hard to believe—their diatribes are of such poor quality, they can convince only persons of their own ilk. No one with an iota of intelligence would even read their trash, far less digest it.

So let us not elevate them to importance by devoting entire editorials to them: this will be my only intervention in the discussion, whatever they may choose to say about me or my colleagues. In fact, I have a column-code of my own, which I imposed on myself many years ago: I read the comments people make, positive or negative, but I do not respond.

In my weekly columns, I express my opinion, and I often criticise others, be they politicians or public officials. But they must always have the right to criticise me.

I should add that long before the advent of the Internet and social media that have taken public discourse to new heights and depths, anonymous critics who served political and economic interests were given free rein in the mainstream media.

In the Sunday Guardian, an unnamed "special correspondent" wrote a full-page opinion (and that was when Guardian had the broadsheet format) that was right wing in the extreme, a virtual voice of business and Government. He (or she) savaged anyone who dissented with big business, and any social or political entity or party that sought to promote equity in the society.

In 1970, when the Black Power movement took the country by storm, Special Correspondent was the bulwark of the mighty, of those who controlled the economy. It was also in that newspaper’s interest to defend the PNM government which it had heavily criticised earlier. Indeed, Dr Eric Williams came to power in 1956 on a platform from which he had savaged the Guardian. I think he also burnt copies of the paper from time to time.

In the aftermath of 1970, as the PNM struggled to recover from its unpopularity, it harnessed the then-equivalents of today’s trolls. They would write letters to the editor under fictitious names. One such letter-writer was the head of Special Branch, Earnest Pierre. He wrote letters under the name Koonj Beharrysingh! We used to laugh when we saw or read a "Koonj letter", and when I encountered him on the streets, I would loudly hail him, "Koonj!"

There was, too, the practice of the party in power harnessing journalists to work for the Government, although nowhere close to the scale of what’s happening today. Because mass media salary-scales are comparatively low, journalists grab these jobs that pay well but have little security.

When I was managing editor of the TnT Mirror in 1991 (when the PNM won the election), a good colleague and friend informed me that he was quitting his job for a political appointment. I knew he was not well-paid (who was?), but I also knew that governments were not permanent. I advised him as much, but he still chose to leave.

Within two years his contract was terminated—and he returned seeking his old job. I had already hired someone else, but I retained him as a freelancer. He never recovered from that blow.

Since the 1990s, successive governments have raided the mainstream media’s newsrooms in their quest to tap into professional talent. Many journalists have gone into political public relations—but who can blame them? Their "packages" are way beyond what media houses can afford.

The incumbent Partnership administration has taken the PR-for-hire recruitment to new heights, and depths. It has more journalists manning its PR fronts than any previous regime. And if what the media report is true, that scores of "trolls" are on the payroll to promote the Partnership, to viciously attack its critics, then we are talking new depths of depravity.

The harsh reality they have chosen to ignore is that while governments come and governments go, the mainstream media remain intact, even thrive, surviving vicious political assaults. Those who brand the Express pro-PNM today will crawl into its newsroom tomorrow, should they find themselves on the political pavement.

And you know what? They will be welcomed, such is the integrity, the professionalism, of the media houses that jealously guard their independence and remain bulwarks of our democracy.

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