Columns

Shocking case of a journalist forced to flee his country

RICKEY SINGH

Sunday, June 01, 2014    

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A month ago, armed criminals in Trinidad and Tobago assassinated an outstanding high-profile senior counsel of the country's criminal justice system — Dana Seetahal — as she was driving home.

Then this past week, an investigative journalist, Mark Bassant, covering crime and security, felt compelled to hurriedly flee his homeland to escape a threat by criminals to his life.

Now, more than a week since the news of a shocking plot to kill Bassant, a journalist of the Port-of-Spain-based Caribbean Communications Network (CCN), the hierarchy of the T&T Police Service are facing strident criticisms for seemingly rationalising the circumstances that could have triggered the death threat from the criminal underworld.

In that twin-island Caricom state where, by last week, gun-related murders had already skyrocketed to 181 — already 30 above the toll for 2013 at the time of writing — there is a growing fear of citizens becoming numb to the epidemic of criminal violence and execution-style murder amid awareness of a low success rate by the police in capturing the killers.

Over the years, as a journalist of the Caribbean region, I have been both a witness to and victim of the politics of a few government leaders and cabinet ministers, which has resulted in my geographical dislocations, and worse, loss of employment as I coped with survival challenges.

Thankfully, however, I never genuflected to the 'powers' that be, nor compromised the fundamental tenets of the profession I continue to share with national and regional journalists — among them some of the best, in competence and integrity — in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and elsewhere.

Shocking precedent

But never have I had to read the shocking accounts of a professional journalist of the Caribbean who felt compelled to speedily abandon his job and flee for his life, after learning he had been targeted for murder by elements of the country's criminal underworld.

And what is worse, in fact scandalous and terrifying, is the reported dimension of treachery among a few members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, with whom this investigative journalist had been accustomed to co-operating on the assumption of shared commitment to fighting crime and which sent him fleeing from work and country.

I cannot recall ever meeting Mr Bassant, either in T&T or elsewhere. Nevertheless, I fully share the outrage of all journalists, media enterprises and organisations that have been denouncing and lamenting the shocking claims of collusion and conspiracy against a journalist who naturally trusted his police connections. After all, they were claiming 'partnership' with him in combating criminality, including gang-related murders.

Based on the coverage in the T&T media, print and electronic, and in particular reports and commentaries in the Express -- a central arm of the CCN group — Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams may well have done himself an injustice by his own convoluted response to what Bassant had reported prior to going into hiding.

In particular, given the gravity of the implications of Bassant's identification of the cops with whom he said he was working, was it really necessary for Commissioner Williams to go public with a response that conveyed the impression more of bias against the CCN journalist by focusing on what he said were previous errors in his reporting?

Top cop's response

Significantly absent from the commissioner's public response was any reference (names not required), to what relevant actions were being pursued pertaining to Mr Bassant's claims of alleged complicity by the cops named in his submitted report.

While understandably anxious to protect the police force he still heads, amid mounting criticisms and disenchantment over lack of successes or breakthroughs in cases of murder and assassinations, Commissioner Williams may well have inflamed passions beyond the corridors of the CCN that the Express so passionately reflected in its editorial of May 26.

Indeed, the Express went as far as to declare that the acting top cop was "unfit for the office of police commissioner". In so doing it fortified an earlier call by a well-known respected senior counsel and columnist, Martin Daly, that Mr Williams "is not the right man for the job of police commissioner".

Whatever the future of Mr Stephen Williams with the T&T Police Force, the immediate challenge remains to bring to justice those who have been identified — cops and criminals — by Mark Bassant when he felt compelled to go public with his horrifying disclosure of a claimed criminal complicity to explain his hurried flight for physical safety.

This is the unprecedented development in the local media world of Trinidad and Tobago — less than a month after the despicable assassination of Ms Seetahal.

Regional and international media enterprises and organisations have been expressing their deep concerns over the implications for press freedom and freedom of expression in the case involving the journalist Bassant and reported collusion of cops and criminals that sent him fleeing for refuge.

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