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Quiet Riot

By Terry Joseph
January 29, 2005

Over the past few years, Government developed a multiplicity of strategies for dealing with uncomplimentary remarks appearing in foreign media references to Trinidad and Tobago, its responses ranging from diplomatic initiative to fiery rebuttal but this week, none of those options was invoked when seriously damaging statements originated right here at home.

After all, information coming from the scene of a brouhaha and reported by locals, is much more credible than, say, CNN parroting impressions from a transient correspondent but interestingly, while local media bashed its host country, the Atlanta-based global news network was trumpeting the magnificence of our Carnival, even unto proposing "a bake and shark on Ash Wednesday, while lying on the beach in Tobago".

With technology having turned every street in the global village into two-way traffic thoroughfares, foreigners often read Internet editions of local newspapers before we even come awake. As my friends in California, USA, film producers Michael Horne and Geoffrey Dunn often remind me, given the time difference, they can read tomorrow's Trini newspapers today.

They were among the many thousands of foreigners who this past year, read unflattering accounts of this country via the Ottawa Citizen, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. They also saw the front page headline of last Monday's Trinidad Guardian, "Pandemonium" in blood-red, with a line above saying "Patrons riot as cops shut down North Stand" and the page-three story that never came anywhere near to justifying the mayhem indicated.

The story set out a scenario that might precede a riot but simply didn't deliver what it so convincingly promised. In its opening paragraph, the article said officials of the National Carnival Commission and Pan Trinbago and police were forced to open up the North and Grand Stands "after patrons attempting to get into the semi-final began rioting".

One would reasonably expect an ensuing depiction of an enraged mob surging forward, armed with at least sticks and stones, ready to do battle but we learnt instead that patrons, apparently taking the softer approach, were "all armed with 'bona fide' ticket-stubs". In fact, the story later said "Extra police officers, all heavily-armed, were then deployed at the North Stand entrance in anticipation of a riot that eventually came and was quelled only because of the decision to open the gates."

Incredibly, in the face of such a build-up, the writer went on to say: "There were no reports of injuries during the melee," the time of this purported bacchanal variously identified as "just before 5 p.m." and later in the same story as one hour after the 12.30 p.m. start of the event, by which juncture, the Guardian said, "things were almost out of control" the article then feeling unsolicited pity for patrons who "were subjected to 'physical' searches through the use of metal detectors".

In a final salvo, the Guardian said: "Panorama competitions have often been plagued by such problems in the past but the outcome has not always been as tumultuous as yesterday", the clearest indication that the writer and those responsible for approving its publication were bereft of even a starting position on the colourful history of this 42-year-old annual event.

Now, understand that all this "rioting" supposedly took place while President Max Richards, accompanied by the First Lady, was being hosted by Culture Minister Joan Yuille-Williams and NCC chairman Kenny de Silva in the very North Stand the story suggested was under siege by marauding hordes.

Contrarily, the three photographs alongside the article showed the President, his wife and de Silva smiling heartily, patrons calmly allowing searches of their coolers and the Siparia Rhythm Section in full flight, making music even as the fictional riot was taking place just a stone's throw (oops!) to the north, the President's security detail clearly not (as the story so dramatically asserted) "realising the situation could escalate and possibly become life-threatening".

Given the article's prominence and with no correction up to yesterday, readers around the world were left with the impression that Panorama - and by extension, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago - is not the place they would rather be. Nearer the truth, one might imagine workers at State Departments everywhere updating and making more stringent travel advisories, warning all potential visitors away from this risky place.

Ironically, last Sunday's "Savannah Party" is being hailed as possibly the safest ever. Apart from predictable pocket-picking on "the track", a free-admission area hosting thousands, no incidence of criminal activity was reported anywhere, nor were vehicle break-ins or theft; as was the case in years previous. Even after the event there were no reports of violence.

Not that this column is making a case for the Government-sponsored poll that found the majority of citizens feel safe, nor am I excusing ineptitude at gate-control at the North Stand during the Panorama preliminaries but to conjure up a riot and foist upon the world news of that fantasy pales against those howlers; Trini bashing being all the more painful when it results from self-inflicted wounds.

Evidently, the perennial boast of Trinis being optimally imaginative at Carnival time has, even so, underestimated the limit of our creativity.

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