Journalists: Government officials need to ‘be more open’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Newsday’s editorial consultant Judy Raymond. – File photo by Angelo Marcelle

Government officials need to be more open.

This was the common challenge journalists said inhibited their ability to properly perform their mandate to keep the public informed and act as their mouthpiece, in light of World Press Freedom Day celebrations on May 3.

Newsday editorial consultant Judy Raymond said public officials need to be more willing to answer questions “fully and openly,” encouraging them to simply “answer their phones.”

“One difficulty is getting public officials and government officials in particular to be more open, remembering that the taxpayer employs them and they are accountable to us…

“It’s very simple. They can answer their phones when we call them or WhatsApp them. Or, when we go to speak to them at assignments where they are giving addresses and so on…they can be more willing to answer questions fully and openly.”

Raymond said although journalists can formerly submit requests for information through the Freedom of Information Act, the process is lengthy and can be very expensive if it progresses to the court system.

“It is sometimes pointed out that we have a Freedom of Information Act so if we can’t get information at first, we can submit a freedom of information request and if that doesn’t get a satisfactory answer, then go to court. But that is a hugely lengthy process.

“They have I think a month to decide whether they are going to say yes or no, in answer to the original request. Then, once you try going to court, there is a huge expense…and it can go on for years and even then, that doesn’t guarantee you are going to find out what you need to know.

Raymond said by the end of that process, whatever it is the journalist wanted to find out, “it’s very old news.”

“The thing about news is that it is new. So, it is not a very helpful process. If there was a quicker way of getting through that process much faster, that would be helpful.”

Newsday senior reporter Narissa Fraser said while some public officials do “answer all the time,” there are others who choose to direct reporters to their corporate communications unit. Some officials, Fraser said, don’t even bother to reply or acknowledge her efforts to contact them for clarification or additional information.

“It’s tough sometimes because you then see members of the public or some of the same officials bashing the media for ‘not painting the full picture,’ when we had been begging officials for paint or brushes for the portrait for weeks.

“Personally, I include when I attempted to contact them but did not get on to them in my story to show an attempt was made to get a thorough story.”

Fraser emphasised the need for greater transparency from those in public office.

“Very often, when you do contact corporate communications units, they say they will ‘get back to you,’ then disappear and don’t reply to follow-up messages. Transparency is important, especially when one is in a position of influence and power.”

Without naming names, Fraser revealed there’s a minister whom she said, “takes pride in blocking every member of the media who tries to contact them.” Despite this challenge, she said she continues to try her best to make contact as she is duty-bound to do so.

“It’s a challenge, but I will never stop attempting to make contact because the public still depends on me to provide as many sides to a story as I can. It’s my duty.”

Sharing similar sentiments concerning the challenge to get information from public officials, Newsday senior business reporter Ryan Hamilton-Davis said people not wanting to “look bad,” is a big issue journalists face.

“People just trying to shy away from the negative press and negative publicity that they hide their faces and this goes from business professionals…people on the street, politicians, everyone. Nobody wants to look bad and nobody wants to outwardly speak towards things that make them look bad and that’s terrible.”

Hamilton-Davis said getting the right information was another challenge for journalists.

“Sometimes there are a lot of different angles and different perspectives to every story…And, getting the actual facts, getting proper information…is one of the biggest challenges.”

Government committed to fostering open dialogue

Responding to questions sent via WhatsApp, Minister of Communications Symon de Nobriga said press freedom embodies one of the pillars of Trinidad and Tobago’s democracy.

“With that freedom comes the responsibility to exercise it for the benefit of a well-informed population that is capable of understanding sometimes complex issues to make the best possible decisions.

“That freedom must be guarded and protected…”

When asked to respond to a question both alerting him to reporters’ complaints about the challenges they experience getting feedback from government officials, and his take on this issue, de Nobriga responded, saying, “I don’t think it would be proper for me to comment on interactions that I wasn’t a part of…”

He asserted his commitment to fostering open dialogue, saying, “effective communication between the government and the press is essential for transparency and accountability.”

Minister of Communications Symon de Nobriga. – File photo

“…I am committed to fostering open dialogue and facilitating constructive engagement between the media and governmental bodies. We recognize the vital role journalists play in our democracy and value their contributions.”

The minister said he thinks the “government does a good job” of giving both the press and the population access to the facts of all aspects of government activities, when asked what he believes the government can do to better foster press freedom, especially in the context of access to information.

“The responsibility of governance means that we must always be factual and responsible in what we say and when we say it. Sometimes this may not align with the desire of the press to have a specific question answered immediately but, in this regard, we have to be guided by that responsibility with which we have been entrusted.”

“That being said, at the Ministry of Communications we are constantly working to improve the way the whole government communicates with the press and citizens and we are always open to suggestions.”

Journalism in the Face of Environmental Crisis

Commenting on this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme: A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the Face of the Environmental Crisis, Raymond said the main obstacle to local journalists reporting on environmental issues is “government indifference.”

She said despite talk of reducing the use of fossil fuels, Trinidad and Tobago’s economy remains almost entirely dependent on it.

“The government seems to be intent on squeezing every possible drop of oil and gas out of the ground as fast as it can before that gets stopped. There is no government interest in it, in the environment, locally, globally, nothing.

“There’s been talk about this bill to do with plastic bottles, I think probably for decades now, and we still don’t have any act in parliament to address that problem. But every time it rains heavily and mysteriously it floods, you see five million plastic bottles clogging up every river in sight and somebody is not making a connection between those things.”

Raymond said while journalists can and should be doing more to report on these types of issues, the government should also bolster their efforts to raise awareness.

“…We need to be able to talk to the people who are in power…who are in a position to actually make things different and they are not interested.

“We’re a small country. We’re very vulnerable to things like rising sea levels, rising temperature levels. We are already in the tropics. What happens if temperatures go up by five degrees? How are people going to survive? We should be at the forefront of efforts to stop that. I know we’re a small place and there might not be much we can do but we should be speaking out a lot more loudly and forcibly about that.”

Despite the obstacles journalists face, Raymond said there is still a lot to celebrate.

“I think we do have a pretty free press. There are some obstacles…but generally we are not harassed, threatened or intimidated.”

Raymond said journalists must remember they are acting on behalf of the public and should not be bullied into silence if they encounter some hostile response from ministers or public officials in response to their questions.

“…We are acting on behalf of the public…Ministers and public officials should be better at not taking things personally — being prepared to answer awkward questions and have sensible answers to them, rather than taking offence to the questions.

“I think journalists need to remember we are the fourth estate. We are a very important pillar of our democracy…The ministers and other public officials who we have to question and who may get angry about it, let them get angry. You are just doing your job. Just remember that they (public officials) work for us, not the other way around.”

Raymond had this simple advice for journalists.

“Keep doing what you do as well as you can.”