Press freedom under attack by British 'interim' government which instituted direct one-man rule from London in 2009, abolished democratic institutions, and recolonised the colony.
Two journalists banned from (interim) government press conferences
Written by Richard Green
FP Turks and Caicos
Turks and Caicos Islands Attorney General Huw Shepheard has banned outspoken radio talk show hosts Robert Hall and Devon Williams from attending government press conferences and will do the same to any other journalists who “behave unprofessionally or who associate themselves too closely with illegal activity.”
Hall, who hosts the “Expressions” talk show on government-run Radio Turks and Caicos (RTC), and Devon Williams, CEO of privately owned Blaze 97.5 FM, were both banned because of their actions in the March 8-12 protest that included an illegal blockade of Airport Road on Providenciales, Shepheard said.
Williams, who is also spokesman for Turks and Caicos Islanders United for Justice and Equality (TCIUJE) which planned the blockade, was one of the leaders of the protest and was arrested with several others for obstruction. Hall covered the event as an RTC journalist, but he also took the microphone during the protest and spoke in support of protesters’ demand for the interim government to set a date for elections. However, he urged them not to block the main road to the airport but to conduct peaceful demonstrations.
The blockade caused two American Airlines flights to be canceled, but traffic was quickly routed to another airport entrance to get travelers to and from their flights to this British Overseas Territory. His Excellency the Gov. Gordon Wetherell supports the attorney general’s actions.
“There is an ordinance today, particularly in the case of public broadcasting, which has actually been infringed in this case,” Wetherell said at a press conference March 23 with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials. “As custodian of the law, the attorney general wrote to the RTC in pursuance of that.”
Asked if other journalists had to fear similar action, the governor said, “I don’t see why that should affect anyone in this room. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” On March 11, Hall hosted a special afternoon edition of “Expressions” with protest leaders and others. Hall said the program was “brought to you by” the TCIUJE. That program caught the attention of the attorney general, who spoke with RTC station manager Chris Jarrett that day and followed the conversation with a letter to Jarrett, which Hall read on his show March 21.
“I expressed the concern that Mr. Hall had departed from the requirements in the broadcasting ordinance that impartiality is preserved as respects issues of political controversy or current public policy, Section 5.2(c) of the ordinance, and I have heard further that the overall coverage of the protest may also have fallen short of the statutory requirement of impartiality,” Shepheard said.
The attorney general said he was awaiting recordings of the broadcasts from Jarrett.
“In the meantime, I think it is important that I reemphasize the government’s policy in relation to journalistic activity,” Shepheard said. “The government clearly recognizes that TCI’s media have a key role to play in reporting and critically assessing government policies on behalf of the TCI public, and the government welcomes the full engagement of TCI’s many journalists and their robust questions.
“Although the standards set out in the broadcasting ordinance only apply directly to public broadcasters, those of decency, accuracy and responsibility at least are hallmarks of professional journalism, whether in public service broadcasting or elsewhere. Accordingly, journalists who either behave unprofessionally or who associate themselves too closely with illegal activity such as by blocking the Airport Road will not be invited to government press conferences. However, they will continue to receive all government press releases.”
As to what Hall said shortly after 2 p.m. on the radio, “I’m yet to see or hear what that concern is,” Hall said.
Hall said he thought the interim government “would have at least said or wrote to me citing what infractions I may have committed, if indeed I did commit any infraction, and give me an opportunity to respond to them. I’m still waiting. But nevertheless, they have made their decisions. I’m not angry about it.”
Hall’s program is still on the air.
Hall said he didn’t associate with those who illegally blocked the road, pointing out that he encouraged protesters to remove the blockade because of the inconvenience to tourists and the chance of slowing medical emergency responses.
On March 22, Williams received a letter from Shepheard saying Williams too was banned from government press conferences.
“The government has decided that, while it is perfectly content to receive other journalists at its press briefings, you will no longer be permitted to attend,” Shepheard told Williams.
In a press release early March 24, Williams said, "While I am deeply and profoundly offended by the tone and content of the AG’s correspondence, my significant concern is about the danger which it embodies and signifies and the rather serious implications which it has for the wider Turks and Caicos Islands in general and this country’s media in particular."
While both Hall and Williams have regularly attended government press conferences as journalists, they vigorously voice their opinions during press conferences and on their radio shows.
A Commission of Inquiry in early 2009 revealed allegations of corruption in the Progressive National Party’s (PNP) elected government that had plunged the country deep into debt. The elected government and parts of the Constitution were suspended, and the governor took over what was initially envisioned as a two-year direct U.K. rule to right the country’s finances and weed out corruption.
But when the government's financial troubles were worse than expected, and criminal and civil investigations into corruption were not complete, the U.K. decided that elections would not be held as scheduled in July 2011. The U.K. then extended its control indefinitely, but the governor says the U.K. hopes to restore local government with elections sometime in 2012.
However, the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office insists that elections won’t happen until the TCI revises and strengthens the country’s Constitution, addresses past government mismanagement and gets the country’s finances in order.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has expressed concern that allegedly corrupt former government officials might seek office if elections were held before completion of criminal investigations.
A number of former PNP officials under investigation, including former Premier Michael Misick, participated in and supported the protest and demand for elections, while the opposition People’s Democratic Movement has spoken out against the demonstration.