Monday, November 10, 2008

State of Fear

"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."- Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Michael Crichton died last week after a very private battle with cancer. Crichton was many things; a writer, a producer, a novelist and a critic. He was one of the first authors I was ever dedicated to reading and my introduction to his work at an early age helped to form a basis of interest in many spheres, from science, to medicine, to engineering to history and the arts. If Crichton was anything, it was that he was a jack of all trades when writing. His work was easy to read, which is a testament to his greatness as a writer. His legacy will undoubtedly live on. May he rest in peace.

Another's whose legacy is sure to live on, should the status quo be maintained, is Patrick Manning's. Though not for the glowing reasons attributed to Crichton earlier. Manning's latest flexion of his ever increasing intoxication with power came when he recently 'visited' a radio station to complain about the 'disrespect' shown to him and his government by two broadcasters during a newscast. Ignoring the obvious undertones of a Prime Minister personally visiting a media house, no doubt in an effort to intimidate, it is even more disturbing that the CEO of 94.1FM, 'O Brien Haynes, would immediately suspend the individuals in question without at least a hearing for their side of the story.

Whether Haynes acted out of support for the Prime Minister or fear of him is unknown, but highly inconsequential at this point. If anything, he should have been at pains NOT to have taken any action at all, until formal procedures were set in motion. This isn't an issue of a crime, a murder, a rape. It is an issue of two of the most basic rights enshrined in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, namely, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Media. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is frightening that the Prime Minister of a country can casually walk into a media house and saliently have individuals fired, regardless of the spin that Manning and his equally disappointing Minister of Information, Neil Parsanlal, a man who emerged from the bowels of the media, want to put on the incident.

But it speaks to a greater dimension that has now pervaded our society. It is as a result of the windfall revenues that the government has experienced over the last four years of hyper-inflated hydrocarbon prices. Intentionally or inadvertently, the government has succeeded in instilling a state of fear in the vast majority of citizens. And it has come about in subtle ways and in the name of progress, social justice and handouts.

While the obvious fear of being a victim of crime has exponentially increased in every sector of society, regardless of race and class, a more silent, insidious fear is being inculcated in specific sectors of the population. Sectors that any truly developed society require in order to function democratically and efficiently.

In the first instance, there is a fear amongst the unskilled or semi-skilled sector, highly involved in the CEPEP and URP projects, that protest or a show of disapproval against the government would be met with their termination and therefore, loss of income. So they stay quiet and accept the pittances. Their children are brought up to believe that this is their only means to survival and a dependency syndrome develops that keeps these workers enslaved and loyal to the state.

In another instance, contractors and business people who depend on government investment in their companies are fearful of losing lucrative opportunities should they be perceived to be acting or vocalising dissatisfaction with the current administration. Therefore, they don't say anything when corruption is blatantly practised under their purview. It is in their interest not to whistle-blow, and so the country loses.

Yet another, more relevant example is seen with the very media. The government provides many media houses with the revenue they require in order to keep functioning. It is by no fluke that 7 television stations, over 20 radio stations and almost 10 newspapers manage to stay afloat in a country with a market of just over 1 million people. This supersaturation of media has not made government more transparent or accountable, as is clearly evidenced by the comedy, nay, tragedy, that is a post cabinet news conference. Instead, many of those in the media would rather keep a fairly neutral line in terms of its editorials lest it be the focus of the withdrawal of government sponsorship and ultimately, bankruptcy. It is this fear that prevents the emergence of an activist media, intent on finding the truth, rather than simply reporting the spin fed to it by the Parsanlal types.

In the final, saddest anecdote, the government has successfully managed to silence the voice of the young intellectual class. Tertiary students, usually the most liberal, activist individuals in any society have been muted. They are fearful to speak out against the administration that pays their fees in full. A noble effort by the government to increase the number of university graduates has had the effect of enrolling many who see a degree as nothing more than a means to an end, with no sense of social activism. So when the media is attacked, the Guild of Students is strangely quiet. There are no longer any protests on campus because students no longer worry about their fees being raised. They are, what I like to call, the fearful complacents.

Ultimately, a government that rules from a throne of fear has more to fear for its own survival when things go south. They cannot continue to spend their way into garnering support and silence. One can hope that democracy prevails. But hope is not a strategy. Slowly but surely, people must be willing to rise from fear and challenge the government on their policies. The media must not be afraid to ask the hard hitting questions and demand transparency and accountability on behalf of its subscribers. The businessmen should not be fearful of losing a contract because they stood for integrity. Students should put aside their fear of victimisation in the name of standing up and demanding that our leaders lead by example and with responsibiliy.

For all our riches and aspirations, our pride and successes, Trinidad and Tobago has, now, more than ever, become a State of fear. And nothing but slivers of courage will be able to rescue us from our deepening abyss.

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