Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution, at Section 4(k), is the only one among the Commonwealth Caribbean countries in which “freedom of the press” is explicitly “recognised and declared” and posited as a fundamental right that has always “existed and shall continue to exist”.
In the other constitutions, freedom of the press is an implicit extension of the individual’s right to free speech, and to hold and exchange information and ideas.
But the fact that this right is enshrined in the Trinidadian constitution doesn’t mean that the Trinidadian press, like media elsewhere in the region, isn’t subject to attacks and assaults by people who are discomfited by its spotlight on transparency, a critical ingredient in both democracy and the fight against corruption.
Last week Wednesday, for instance, officers from the Financial Investigation Branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service entered the headquarters of the Express Newspaper and searched the office of its Editor-In-Chief, Omatie Lyder. They were attempting to determine the source of a story the paper published four days earlier, about an investigation by the Financial Investigation Unit (FIU) into $2 million of “suspicious” lodgements to the accounts of a senior public official. These transactions were flagged by the banks.
The police acted under a section of Trinidad and Tobago’s Finance Intelligence Act, which makes it an offence for anyone, except in defined circumstances, to disclose an investigation that has begun into a suspicious financial transaction, or that a suspicious activity report has been made by the FIU. If Ms Lyder, or anyone else at the Express, were convicted of such a charge, they could face a fine of $250,000 and/or jailed for three years.
On the face of it, it is extreme for the police, in a liberal democracy, to raid a newspaper’s office when there are other avenues open to them to pursue investigations of the type related to the Express story. What is especially peculiar about this case is that the subject of the FIU probe is the acting police chief, Irwin Hackshaw, who appears to have sanctioned, if not directly ordered, the raid.
First, the police’s action bears the hallmark of an attempt to intimidate Ms Lyder and the Express to commit what, for journalists, is a cardinal sin: revealing their sources. And worse is if, as in this case, the press is not only reporting facts, but revealing potential wrongdoing. Further, from this distance, the raid on the Express, and the search on Ms Lyder’s office, carries the stench of a blatant conflict of interest on Mr Hackshaw’s part, of which he should have been aware. Or, at least, of the appearance of a conflict. Indeed, undermining the basis of the Express’ report and tainting the FIU’s investigation, if that occurred, could only be to Mr Hackshaw’s benefit.
If there is anything to be salvaged from this ham-fisted bit of policing, is that there was no attempt by Mr Hackshaw’s boss, Police Commission Gary Griffith, who was abroad at the time of the raid, at circling the wagons. While not openly second-guessing Mr Hackshaw, but pleading ignorance of the action, Mr Griffith stressed that at no time, as police commissioner, would he condone “any abuse of power”.
He, however, must go further. Mr Griffith’s first order of business, on his return to office, must be to order a full review of the acting police chief’s conduct in the Express affair, with a view to determining the extent of Mr Hackshaw’s conflict of interest, and whether this ought not be a matter for disciplinary action by the Police Service Commission of Trinidad and Tobago.
Additionally, the Trinidad and Tobago press, as well as civil society organisations, ought to demand an effective whistle-blower law, while in Jamaica, it is an opportunity for us to renew agitation for an upgrading of existing legislation.
At the same time, the Express, its owners, One Caribbean Media, and Ms Lyder should sue Mr Hackshaw, the police officers who participated in the raid, as well as the Trinidad and Tobago attorney general and the national security minister for infringing the rights and freedoms afforded by Section 4(f) of the constitution.
A victory for them would be of value to the efforts of the free, independent press across the Caribbean.