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Sunday, 01 January 2012

Trinidad and Tobago Police Raid Broadcaster

Critics Protest Show of Force in Execution of Search Warrant 

By: Steven M. Ellis, Press Freedom Adviser

Police officers guard the entrance to the office of Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar during a rally by union workers as union leaders and Persad-Bissessar met over a wage dispute in St Clair on 26 July 2011. REUTERS/Andrea De Silva

VIENNA, 1 Jan. 2012 – More than 20 armed police officers on Thursday raided the offices of a private television broadcaster in Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city Port of Spain.

Local media reported that police came to the offices of Caribbean Communications Network Television 6 (CCN) to execute a search warrant for a videotape containing footage depicting an alleged sexual assault on a mentally-disabled 13-year-old girl.

Representatives of CCN reportedly met with police officers at the offices and handed over the videotape. Local observers said that police carrying out the raid blocked both entrances to the compound where CCN’s offices are located and searched both staff and visitors.

Authorities last year opened an investigation into complaints that the broadcaster may have breached the Sexual Offences Act when it aired the footage in October during reporter Ian Alleyne’s controversial Crime Watch program. Alleyne apologised on air and CCN suspended him, but he and the show returned to the station’s airwaves in November.

CCN Chief Executive Officer Shida Bolai told Stabroek News that the company did not protest the execution of a search warrant. But she said CCN had cooperated with police in their investigation and she expressed concern over the authorities’ show of force.

International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “A raid by police on a media house always raises profound issues of freedom of the press and the permissible scope of government action. We are very disappointed that authorities decided to send approximately 25 armed officers to CCN’s offices to look for a single videotape they could have obtained by asking. Such actions inevitably have a chilling effect on media freedom and we urge the government to take steps to make sure that disproportionate shows of force like this don’t become a habit.”

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago condemned the police action in a statement saying it “can be construed as an attempt to intimidate and harass a media house that, from all reports, had been co-operating fully with their investigation”.

Dawn Thomas, a member of IPI’s Executive Board and Chief Executive Officer of One Caribbean Media Ltd., of which CCN is a part, said the incident left many of the station’s staff traumatised.

“This unnecessary show of force by the police was against a background of a cooperative stance from the management of CCN on other occasions that video material was requested by the police,” she added. “I am very concerned about this development since it has the potential to intimidate media staff, undermine public confidence and poses a threat to press freedom.”