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Tuesday 25 September 2018
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Abortion a matter of public interest

WHEN things get tough, Governments always turn to the usual scapegoats. The remarks of Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh are a classic case of shooting the messenger.

But this tack damages democracy as much as it undermines the credibility of the Government.

What gives Deyalsingh the right to censor the media? “I am ending this discussion of abortion,” Deyalsingh declared last Friday. “I don’t deny that this is a convenient topic to sell news....The focus should be squarely on source reduction. Let us keep our eyes on the prize.” Deyalsingh should keep his eye on the Constitution, Section 4 of which enshrines freedom of the press as a supreme right in this land. The Minister may well feel abortion is completely unrelated to the question of Zika, but even if that were so, abortion would still be a matter of public interest. The Government’s policy on the matter is a public health issue, a criminal justice issue, and a gender affairs issue. There is no escaping it, Zika or no.

Ask the women who may be subject to back-alley abortions; the families harmed through unsuccessful attempts at abortion; the victims of rape and incest; the critically ill mothers; the households unable to fed their children; as well as persons who may find themselves subject to law enforcement agencies. Even a doctor and a mother reportedly involved in one case of statutory rape have recently been ensnared by the law.

It falls ill in the mouth of Deyalsingh to reprimand members of the media for raising the question of the State’s policy on this matter particularly when his Cabinet colleagues bred much confusion on the issue last week at the Cabinet media “briefing”. In shutting down questions on the matter, they claimed Deyalsingh would address the issue.

Embarrassing scenes played out at the Office of the Prime Minister when the Communications Minister Maxie Cuffie – whose portfolio title is fast becoming ironic – said, obtusely, “The Government will obey the law of the land.” Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, at the same briefing, said Cabinet’s deliberations were secret. “Cabinet discussions are secret and confidential,” he told one reporter. He then sought to deflect the inquiry by getting personal, saying, “You know that.” The only coherent response really came from Minister of Finance Colm Imbert who, speaking at the same briefing, said, “No decision has been taken on that matter.” But it is not just the abortion issue that has riled up some officials. Crime, too, is getting ministers vex with the media.

“It is the occasional bad behaviour that leads to murder and gets the front pages,” says Works Minister Fitzgerald Hinds on the coverage of crime at Laventille. “I am calling on those responsible for the nasty imaging of Laventille to cease and settle and take it down and give us a break”. Is the Minister suggesting that when crime occurs it should not be reported? Is the taking of a human life not the most important matter which we should, as a society, be concerned about? Laventille alone has not been on the front pages. Crime is now all over Trinidad – Enterprise and the Mitan River are two examples of locations most prominently featured within recent times. With a crime rate that is taking such a heinous turn, the media arguably has more than a right to report. It has a duty.

Through good times and bad, it is the media, not the politicians or public institutions, that have held public officials accountable. Even if private media organisations are imperfect, that is no reason to shut them up. The fact of the matter is, governments come and go and it is the media that will always be here.

Public officials cannot afford to forget that the media is the first line of defence of any democracy. They should not suppress public debate.

They should answer.

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