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Fazeer, MATT and the government’s rights

Posted: November 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments »

I worked with Fazeer Mohammed and his wife at the Guardian when they both were there in the early to mid-nineties. I can’t say we were great friends but we had the casual, friendly interaction that characterises many office relationships; I knew they were orthodox Muslim but it never impaired their functioning, she in payroll and he in journalism. I’ve since been interviewed by him twice on CNMG’s talk show First Up, the most recent time being just a few weeks ago, with Roslyn Carrington, to publicise the Allen Prize and its inaugural seminar. He is a bright, on-point journalist with an aggressive but respectful interview style and to me it was a pleasure to be the subject of his questioning. But then again, I’m not a government minister.

Fazeer’s “downsizing” from that job at CNMG, described, he said, as a “cost cutting” measure, has left many media workers and observers keenly uncomfortable. MATT issued a press release in protest of the decision not only to fire Fazeer after a controversial interview with a government minister, but to replace him with Andy Johnson, erstwhile journalist and now the head of the Government Information Service.

GIS employees routinely go back and forth between privately owned media and the GIS, but I don’t know a single one who confuses the two. GIS is the GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SERVICE. The people who work there may be reporters, editors and cameramen, but their responsibilities are very different from those of other media workers; they are there to report the business of the government, from the angle the government dictates. (Does it need to be said that privately owned media don’t have the same goal?) Andy Johnson is an excellent talk show host, and was a brilliant journo when he wrote for the Guardian and the Express–but he’s now the head of the GIS and there’s no way he belongs on air in anything other than GIS programming. CNMG is state-owned but it has from time to time asserted its editorial independence; you can tell that Fazeer, at least, believed that spiel. In the transcript of the excerpt of the interview I read in the paper, he asks a hard question about Kamla’s unfortunate statement on disaster aid but never gets an answer; instead, he was accused in the interview of being anti-Kamla and (as an orthodox Muslim) opposed to women’s leadership.

If it is government policy to usurp the editorial autonomy of CNMG stations, and to make CNMG employees government mouthpieces like employees of the GIS, then there should be a clear statement iterating that. If not, CNMG staff should be left to do their jobs without fearing they will be downsized if they step on the wrong toes or imply anything but complete support for the government of the day.


Dear MATT,

Posted: September 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The first time I heard about you was from Nazma Muller, an unlikely mentor but one of my first in the practice of journalism. There was a controversy–might have been the jailing of journalists after they defied a court’s gag order, but I’m not entirely certain–and a march in Port-of-Spain organised to raise awareness of the rights of the media. I didn’t know about the march or the Media Association of Trinidad & Tobago and Nazma well bouf me. “Girl, you’re a journalist now!” she said in her inimitable way. Message was that MATT was for people like me and I should get acquainted with them for my own good.

I did, in time, and eventually stood for election as a floor member of the executive. We had our moments but I eventually stepped down in frustration from the post. I stayed a MATT member, though, because whatever the problems that might plague one executive or ten, we as an industry need MATT.

I was proud on Saturday gone, as I am every two years, to vote in the new executive of MATT. I think the people on the new executive are bright, enterprising and energetic. I will give them my full support.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. You see, it has been burning me for the past few weeks the things people have been saying about you. They say MATT is useless, powerless and maybe even corrupt. They say Trinidad & Tobago has no “real journalists”. I don’t know why they’re saying those things, and I certainly don’t agree. Yes, MATT needs restructuring to better meet the needs of journalists and people working in media. But it can’t live up to its potential when only about 20 people are ever active in it. I’ve been to too many MATT meetings that had to be abandoned because of poor turnout, or training sessions with only about five or six people present–many of them seasoned professionals with little need of training (although everybody could use a refresher from time to time).

It frustrates me to hear the things people say about you, MATT. I hear these things and say to myself, “Why don’t they help build instead of tearing MATT down all the time?” We need MATT, or its equivalent. Who but a MATT is going to speak against muzzling journalists? Who but a MATT is going to keep an eye on the government and stop it from doing things like registering journalists, or putting prohibitive measures in place to keep public information private? Who but a MATT will provide affordable training for us?

People talk about MATT instituting a code of ethics. I used to be ambivalent about this, but I’m not any longer. I firmly believe now we need individual media houses to take responsibility for this, as there is room for all kinds of interpretations of the laws of publishing and broadcasting and to ask a whole industry to subscribe to one standard is undemocratic. The courts are there to protect citizens; the media ought not to stop itself from breaking the news if there is news to be broken. There will always be media houses that walk a thin line between libel and journalism, and I know from personal experience what a nasty, personal media attack can feel like. But do I want those papers to go away? No, because they sometimes in their temerity and audacity publish the things the “legitimate” media won’t. But it’s not for me to say. I think MATT should debate this, properly, openly, and let people be satisfied that they have had their say.

I know in a democracy it is only right for everyone to have their say. Even in criticising you, MATT. But when the criticism becomes mere target practice, it’s time for us to grow up and look at MATT not as the enemy but as a vessel for all of us in media to get on board. Nobody can fix MATT from the outside.

Sincerely

Lisa