Well Said, Papa Patos

On truth devoured
Silent play in the shadow of power
A spectacle monopolised
The cameras eyes on choice disguised
Was it cast for the mass who burn and toil?
Or for the vultures who thirst for blood and oil?
Yes a spectacle monopolised
They hold the reins, stole your eyes
All the fistagons the bullets and bombs
Who stuff the banks?
Who staff the party ranks?

—Guerrilla Radio,Rage Against the Machine

I never thought I would say this, but maybe Papa Patos is right. It irks me to admit it too. That I could agree with anything he says is enough to give me a headache and make me want to leave the country before zaboca season starts properly. The clip came on the radio early on Tuesday morning. A screeching voice that I didn’t immediately recognise as the big daddy himself. I guess I haven’t ever heard him sound so high-strung. It sounds like Papa Patos is finally getting antsy about just how many of the party faithful still love him and would turn out whether or not he sent a bus to pick them up and provided free pan, free rum and a rent-a-crowd appearance fee. The announcer cut through the audio clip to explain that the PM had been addressing party faithful the night before at Woodford Square when he said that he didn’t think the media were playing their role properly.

It’s not the first time that he’s expressed this sentiment. Let’s not forget the whole storming the radio station and getting the announcers suspended because he is a regular citizen who has a right to complain if something bothers him. Maybe he can’t help himself. It’s a time-honoured tradition in Trinidad now for Prime Ministers to have suspicion and contempt for the media. Papa Patos is right this time though. The media aren’t playing their role properly. If they were, people like him would never be able to hold on to power for as long as he has. The default response of course is to presume that anyone who expresses a thought that is not toeing the ruling party’s line must be working for the opposition. Because of course a citizen can’t possibly think in a way that is independent without someone else planting the seed of disagreement in his or her head.

That the media are populated by citizens who are nervous about crime, nervous about falling advertising revenues that pay their salaries is neither here nor there for Papa Patos. But it should mean the world for us. Because if the media can’t truly represent the concerns of the people of this nation, then what is the point of publishing newspapers, what is the point of producing a radio or television broadcast. If the media can’t quarrel with the Government the way that most citizens can only dream of having an opportunity to do, why are we here? Papa Patos is right. I mean, if the media really were doing their work, half of the bobol and bacchanal that people get away with in this country would be properly scrutinised. Indeed, if we had the vulvicular fortitude to really do our jobs we’d have him a little more than sweaty and hysterical in Woodford Square.

Unfortunately many of the people who work in the media are as paralysed by fear as the rest of the population. Or just generally uninterested in coming out of their comfort zones, investigating, questioning or challenging the stories they report on. The critical eye is virtually non-existent, and what is left in its place is some occasional whiny criticism. We are ill-equipped to find the facts, let alone challenge anyone with them. Whether it’s on the Merhair issue or the smelter issue as reporters we are missing the point and getting caught up with the smoke instead of the fire. Information is the only weapon necessary when you are fighting for freedom, and there is information that is missing from our collective national consciousness. However if Papa Patos thinks the role of the media is to be a glorified public relations outfit designed to make the mess that they make smell like roses I hope we continue to be abysmal failures. If the role of the media is to defend a nation with the truth, then we desperately need to start sharpening our tools.

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World Press Freedom Day

It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here
What better time than now
All hell cant stop us now
All hell cant stop us now
Guerilla Radio, Rage Against the Machine

It took me a long time to write this week’s column. I didn’t do my usual ‘type whatever came into my head’.

I mean, now that Robin Montano is making front page news saying that he wants to sue people for forwarding e-mails they did not author, I can only imagine what other interesting tortures they’ll come up with for people like me who like to think we live in a democracy.

But it’s like Papa Patos was saying the week before, it’s a question of behaviour. And not of what caused the behaviour. It’s like getting rubbed down by the Babylon because you have a bandit face or getting blanked from entry into a nightclub because you too ghetto black or too country Indian.

It’s a well-known fact that I’m not particularly fond of shoes and wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those power suit things. In other words I don’t have court clothes and so maybe I need to be a little more careful about what I say.

I hemmed and hawed a lot more than I usually do. Pacing back and forth, changing the music several times. Wondering if it were possible to write a column that didn’t cause offence to somebody powerful and mighty and capable of intimidating a poor defenceless little journalist like me.

Especially now that every time I pass the Prime Minister’s residence the security detail hails me out by name. But maybe I shouldn’t even be saying that, lest someone should possibly maybe perhaps construe that as some kind of anti-Patos-ness on my part.

It’s World Press Freedom Day today, and I guess some of us would love to boast at the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is the only English speaking Caribbean country to be in the top 20 of the World Press Freedom Index (we’re number 19). Even UK is number 24 and the USA is number 48.

I’ve been thinking about this number 19 status. How we ended up there. Do we really have press freedom or is it just that nobody takes the media seriously enough to think of anything that gets published or broadcast as a threat to their authority or their profit margins?

Maybe the media are as much of a pappyshow as all other institutions in this country, like the church or parliament. Toothless, useless. Maybe we’re all just going through the motions because we don’t know anything else or can’t do any better.

Maybe journalists are really just there to meet deadlines and fill space so that big business can make money off whatever is entertaining Trinbagonians the most that day.

Maybe this is why this is the only form of local television that most supposedly local television stations invest in. The news is information and entertainment enough. No need for police shows and comedy shows and dramas because all of these get played out every night in the news and the whole nation stops to take in the stories and watch themselves perform their best acts.

So if a dotish e-mail that reads like bad fiction could get that kind of rise out of our favourite economic hit-man of the day, I wonder what he would do if some journalist really started doing like everybody would like to happen and investigate the Udecott.

Or I wonder what would happen if someone were to really begin to investigate what the hell the EMA does, if they didn’t know that a 60-room hotel was being built right around the corner from their headquarters. I wonder when someone will really assess whether they have the capacity to manage our potential for a serious industrial disaster or even to protect the many communities in this country who are at risk as we speak.

And I wonder if I should feel ahow about wondering if even Zimbabwe could get rid of Mugabe why are we still stuck with PNM inefficiency. Oh yes, it’s that whole non-functional opposition problem.

Okay, so the truth is, the day I feel frightened to say what is on my mind is the day I die, but what really frightens me is that in the face of all that is wrong and given the studious lack of interest in the powers that be to set it right, where are the journalists who are willing to do the work to ensure that these stories get told? Where are the editors who will support them? Where are the camera people and the hackers and the bloggers doing the dirty work?

It’s the journalists who usually get the tootsy end of the stick first when democracy is under threat. Here they don’t get shot, they just get silenced with a big salaried corporate communications position. Which, for me, is an unfortunate fate far worse than death.