Trinidad Express are part of CCN, a member of the Public Media Alliance

On Wednesday 11 March, seven members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) invaded the offices of the Trinidad Express newspaper with a warrant to search the premises.

Despite protestations about the parameters of the warrant, the officers spent three hours in the Express newsroom and searched the office of the Editor-in-Chief, Omatie Lyder, for one hour. They seized four flash drives which have not as yet been returned to Ms. Lyder.

The officers were searching for information on a source used in an article published the previous Sunday by the Trinidad Express. The article, entitled “ACP flagged for suspicious activity”, reported that three local banks had marked TT$2 million in questionable deposits made by Acting Police Commissioner, Irwin Hackshaw.

Regarding the raid on the Express newsroom, the TTPS stated that it acted under the stipulations of Section 2 of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIUTT) Offences and Penalties Act, entitled “Tipping Off”. This Act gives police the power to investigate a source who has ‘tipped off’ any third-party. If the Trinidad Express is convicted as a Third Party under this Act, it could be liable to pay TT$5 million.

Hackshaw, who is the subject of the investigative story by Trinidad Express journalist Denyse Renne,was overseeing the same officers that went to the Trinidad Express to ascertain information on the source who participated in Ms. Renne’s investigation. This indicates a clear conflict of interest regarding the search, as the police officers who are investigating the source of the Express story would have been reporting to Hackshaw who was Acting Commissioner at the time.

These actions by the TTPS, which have brought more attention to an ongoing investigation, also raise questions about the integrity of the probe. Both the Minister of National Security Stuart Young and the Police Commissioner Gary Griffith have denied any prior knowledge of the raid. Griffith was abroad at the time. He has now returned to his substantive position as Police Commissioner.

The Trinidad Express filed for an injunction to prevent any further searches at 23:00 on 11 March before high court Judge Kevin Ramcharan. This  was granted at 12:30am on March 12th.

Lyder commented on the search saying that under no circumstances will she reveal any source, “Our sources are our lifeblood and we will protect them with all our journalistic integrity.”

The Trinidad and Tobago Media Association (MATT) issued a statement saying the actions of the TTPS was an “undisguised frontal attack on the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago that guarantees free speech and press freedom.”

MATT has also raised the issue of legal protection for whistle blowers under acts like the FIU.

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) also denounced the raid. President Christopher Barnes said that the actions of the TTPS “was nothing short of intimidation and must be condemned of as a serious threat to the freedom of the press.”  In December 2019 the IAPA also expressed its concern over the intimidation of journalists at the Trinidad Express Newspaper by Police Commissioner Gary Griffith.

Not unexpected

Unfortunately this situation was not unexpected by local press. Just last month, Judge Frank Seepersad ruled that certain parts of the Sedition Act are unconstitutional. Directly after his ruling, the State filed 29 separate grounds of appeal and Judge Seepersad’ s ruling has been suspended, putting sedition back on the books.

Even though the Caribbean is not generally known as having a draconian media landscape or pervasive violence towards media, the media is increasingly under attack. Recent events like the overturning of the sedition ruling in Trinidad and Tobago, the implementation of an intimidating cybercrime law in the British Virgin Islands as well as the physical aggression towards journalists in Haiti, are all extremely alarming.

The Public Media Alliance supports the statements made by MATT and the IAPA.  Freedom of the press is a key focus for the organisation as it is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy democracy. When trusted entities like the TTPS violate this freedom, the interest of the public is irrevocably compromised. PMA stands in solidarity with the Trinidad Express and will be making representation to the Trinidad High Commission in London. 

Trinidad Express are part of CCN, a member of the Public Media Alliance

Header Image: View from Woodbrook One over Port of Spain, Trinidad. Credit: Star Lion/Creative Cloud