One might be inclined to excuse the privileging of State-owned TTT by Communications Minister Symon de Nobriga as the impulse of a political neophyte. However, when it is consistent with a pattern in the Government’s relationship with the independent media, it cannot be passed off as a joke.
The time has come for the Government to lift the restrictions imposed on the media in the name of the pandemic. Having reached the point where public policy is on the side of learning to live with Covid-19, the Government, too, must recognise that the time has come for living with the free press. In the same way that public health regulations are being lifted, the restrictions imposed on the media in the name of Covid-19 must now be dismantled. This newspaper, for one, has no intention of allowing its journalism to be supplanted by curated photos from the Office of the Prime Minister or video news coverage selected from State-owned TTT or the Government’s Division of Information.
Given the Covid-19 emergency, the media made some difficult concessions, including limiting physical attendance at news events as well as the number of questions to be asked at news conferences. However, with the high level of vaccinated staff and continued observance of public health protocols, we feel confident about a full return to the norms of press freedom in a democracy.
The ease with which junior minister de Nobriga defended limiting media access to TTT during Saturday’s repatriation of 680 Venezuelan nationals is disturbing. Government officials are clearly getting too comfortable with their perceived power over the media under a pandemic information regime.
Over the past 16 months, the Government has had an almost unfettered run with its ability to commandeer media time at will, dictate which media are allowed to attend its news conferences, and the number of questions to be asked. The weekly post-Cabinet news conference which started off as an opportunity for the Government to brief the public on decisions taken by the Cabinet and for the media to question Government decisions and actions has degenerated into ad hoc opportunities for ministerial posturing.
The Health Ministry’s Covid-19 regular updates have been reduced to repetition of day-old data and exercises in deflection by the medical team to the beat of ministerial chest-pounding.
From the outset we challenged the Ministry of Health’s media blackout on matters related to patient care and management of the pandemic. Patient confidentiality became the blanket that covered up the lack of transparency. In attempting to establish itself as the sole source of information, the Health Ministry may well have played a significant role in the public’s lack of understanding of Covid-19. It was not until deaths began escalating and families took their pain to social media that the population grasped the danger confronting them.
Meanwhile, Parliament, the centrepiece of our democracy, is yet to re-open its doors to the media. We remind the authorities there that Parliament TV, with its numerous rules determining how parliamentary proceedings are to be broadcast, is no substitute for the coverage provided to the public by free and independent media.