Talk Raoul, talk history
By Raffique Shah
January 18, 2015
Raoul Pantin and I never worked together as journalists in the 40-odd years that I knew him. Yet, in some curious ways, our lives and paths intertwined and intersected, particularly during the major political convulsions in the nation's history.
As products of the same generation, we forged a friendship that allowed us to share experiences of different eras (witness his "Afro" hairstyle in the 1970s and my rebellious profile) even as we at times disagreed on issues. When, last Wednesday, I heard he had passed on, I realised that a phone call I had planned to make early in the New Year would now never happen—a cruel reminder that we had both reached "that age" when one must do what one plans since there may be no tomorrow.
Much has been said by his peers and protégés about his multimedia talents for me to add anything. I knew him first as a journalist that an activist could trust, and most of all as a writer/columnist whose style and depth made him a must-read.
For me to talk about Raoul is to talk history. When the mutiny occurred in April 1970, the government imposed a "news blackout" on what was happening at Teteron, so most people were unaware for two days that large numbers of troops had mutinied and seized control of the Regiment's main camp.
Alfred Aguiton later told me he had secured and taped a telephone interview with my colleague Rex Lassalle, but the state-owned radio station refused to air it. He quietly sneaked it out of the country with someone who was flying to Guyana, and so it was the story broke on the Caribbean airwaves.
For the record, Aguiton and the late Leo de Leon were the only two journalists we allowed to visit the rebel-held camp.
During the Black Power upheaval, Raoul did extensive reporting in the Guardian. His story on the long march to Caroni was comprehensive, as was what he wrote on Basil Davis' funeral…great archival material.
Coverage of the Court Martial was handled mainly by Kishore Tiwary and Evans Greene. But on the day Rex and I won our appeals and were released from prison (July 27, 1972), Raoul monitored and reported on the events—a huge crowd outside the prison, later outside Camp Ogden, and finally at Rex's Woodbrook home. It was the first time he and I talked, the beginning of a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
He followed my activism among cane farmers, with another landmark coming on February 18, 1975. By then, George Weekes, Basdeo Panday, Joe Young and I had forged a labour alliance called the United Labour Front (ULF). Sugar workers and cane farmers were already on strike, and on that day we summoned oil and other workers to join in a rally at Skinner Park.
The response surpassed our wildest expectations—there was a massive crowd. We were forced to keep the meeting going from mid-morning to five o'clock. As the crowd dispersed, Raoul asked to talk with me. I thought it would be the ritual radio interview: he was part of a vibrant team that produced a programme titled "Newsmakers" for Radio 610.
It was not. In a hushed tone, he told me that management had issued an order banning my voice and image from the State-owned radio and television stations. He said that staff members were resisting such interference, but he could not say what would happen.
The ban was enforced, Raoul, Jerome Rampersad and Dr Eric Williams' brother (yes, brother!), sports announcer Tony Williams, were fired, and the corporation's chairman who had done the dirty deed, George Bowen, dropped dead in a bank, all within a week.
Dr Williams promptly named the notorious Jimmy Bain as successor to Bowen. Bain told the media, "Not only do I agree with my predecessor's decision to ban Shah, but I extend the ban to include Weekes and Panday!" Other journalists, among them Aguiton, also fell victim to the Bain-axe.
Since the State owned the lone television station in the country, and two of three radio stations, the implications for freedom of speech and press freedom were dire. But Raoul and others stood firm, losing their jobs at a time when there weren't many options available to them. That was the mettle of the man.
In July 1990, when he was among the hostages being held at Television House, Muslimeen member Andy Thomas telephoned me at the Mirror. I immediately enquired about the welfare of the journalists who were hostages and demanded to speak with Raoul.
He came on the line and we spoke. Of course I knew he and the others were under intense stress, but I tried to lift his spirit. He asked me to call his brother Dennis and let him know that he was alright, which I did.
As all who knew him noted that he was never the same man after that traumatic experience. In his retirement years, we would often telephone each other and chat, gripe and cry for our beloved country, the tears and anger spilling over into our columns. I suppose that's where old scribes are put to pasture, left to vent our spleen, and eventually to die. Farewell, Raoul.
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