Thursday, April 23, 2009

Summit All Up

CARICOM Heads meet with Mr. Obama

Well, the 5th Summit of the Americas is over and it remains to be seen what benefits are to be derived from it. However, I, and I am sure, most would agree that, to paraphrase U.S. President Obama, it all depends on the actions of the member countries rather than just their words. This certainly has been the bugbear of international agreements of all kinds for many years. Many countries sign on to laudatory and grandiose statements, resolutions, protocols, and whatever label they come up with, and unfortunately many a time there is no follow-through on what they were signatories to.

At the end of this summit Prime Minister Manning’s was the sole signature (so it is notable too that not even Mr. Obama signed) on the final document (see the Declaration of Commitment of Port-of-Spain), signing on behalf of all the governments. It remains to be seen now how binding his signature can be upon all the other nations as the OAS (Organization of American States) claimed in a post summit press conference. Nevertheless, from all indications and reports, this appeared to have been a summit of much frankness and openness, so perhaps for all of this forthrightness some diplomatic feathers were ruffled. In the midst of all of the hemispherical problems however, it still remains that there are many issues, which, in all likelihood, can best be solved through cooperation among countries and this, despite whatever differences, is what should remain at the forefront of our leaders’ minds.

For many, as was obvious from the general reactions, this summit was also, to a great extent, about the presence of Mr. Obama. His youth and charisma along with the historical significance of being the first Afro American U.S. President, carries a powerful combined impact that surely will not dissipate for a considerable time and overwhelming receptions are what will follow Mr. Obama for a long time in all his travels on the global stage, similar to, but I believe beyond those of the still lusty receptions of his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, providing he maintains his popularity.

It is for a similar reason too why Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is also popular, at least in Latin America: he being the first person of indigenous descent to be elected president in his country. Mr. Obama’s visit too, represents the second such, what can be considered, historical visit for our country within recent time, the first being that of the visit of Mr. Mandela in 2004.

The Prince & the Pres: Brian Lara and Mr. Obama. This photo graced the covers of all local newspapers.

U.S. President Obama greeting children at
Piarco airport Trinidad and Tobago

A gushing Mrs. Paula Gopee-Scoon, Trinidad and Tobago's Foreign Minister, and Mr. Obama.

The Pres. Obama photos above were taken from a slideshow available on

Friday, April 17, 2009

Summit Time

The 5th Summit of the Americas is now underway in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (the first Summit was held in Miami, in 1994). The theme of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, is "Securing Our Citizens' Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability."

In line with this theme, the 5th Summit of the Americas Web site states “The focus of the Fifth Summit will be on human prosperity, energy security, climate change and sustainable development.”

Given the above, there are many issues that our country needs to address which fit into the summit theme. However, if we tried to tackle them one at a time we’d never get around to them all. In fact that is why we have all these government Ministries and departments (isn’t it?) where each of them fulfilling their respective mandates as need be, would help address all the varied issues at hand.

Nonetheless, given the limitations of the poll we have available now, please bear to select just one issue in answer to our poll question in the right right menu bar.

Thanks for your participation and comments.

See live coverage of summit activities on Trinidad and Tobago's CNMG (Caribbean New Media Group) live stream. Be sure to check out other Trinidad and Tobago news sites and blogs for coverage and information.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It All Ads Up: Alas, We Own Media Matters

"People perpetuate themselves through the images they create."

Errol Sitahal, Tony Hall from And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon

With the recent closure of Gayelle TV’s News Department one wonders if there is any more fallout to come with respect to local media. This conjecture is by no means to cast any mal yeux (pronounced locally as: mal-jo) i.e. bad or evil eye, upon the local media fraternity but is simply made within the context of the current global economic downturn, which, of course, is having an impact on the local economy. Across the globe, the economic squeeze is being felt in varying sectors and the media industry has not escaped the constricting economic embrace.

Although, at least in the U.S., there has been some recent lightening of the dour recessionary rhetoric from the U.S. President himself, when he was widely quoted in the media on Tuesday April 14, as seeing “glimmers of hope” for the U.S. economy. Mr. Obama’s statements were later on the same day followed by similar sentiments from the U.S. Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, who was reported as stating that “recently we have seen tentative signs that the sharp economic decline in economic activity may be slowing.”

But the U.S. media, particularly newspapers, have not been faring well: a negative consequential continuation of the growth of online media and cable, and which is now seeing a further dampening of the outlook for the industry with the current economic climate. In the U.S. from the State of the Media 2009 Web page, produced annually by the renowned Pew Research Center, the report starts with a succinct and telling statement, “Some of the numbers are chilling.” It goes on further to state in the introduction that: “This is the sixth edition of our annual report on the State of the News Media in the United States. It is also the bleakest.”

It reports a 23% fall in newspaper ad revenues in the last two years, along with the bankruptcy and loss in stock value of newspaper companies. With respect to the Internet the report states:

“The number of Americans who regularly go online for news, by one survey, jumped 19% in the last two years; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27%. Yet it is now all but settled that advertising revenue—the model that financed journalism for the last century—will be inadequate to do so in this one. Growing by a third annually just two years ago, online ad revenue to news websites now appears to be flattening; in newspapers it is declining.”

In the U.K. a December 2008 article "Writing on the Wall for Newspapers" (you can register for free to read the article) in the Financial Times relating its findings from Deloitte and GroupM (a media and marketing forecasting company) industry reports, mentioned predictions of a fall in ad revenues for the newspaper and magazine industry by as much as 20% in 2009. In U.S television the situation of industry decline seems the same, at least for traditional broadcast stations. In "The Not-so-Big Four," an article in the April 8 edition of the Economist it states that:

“Local television stations, many of them owned by or affiliated with national broadcasters, have seen advertising revenue fall by as much as 40%... It is not that people are watching less television. In the last quarter of 2008 the average American took in 151 hours per month, an all-time record, according to Nielsen, a market-research firm. The trouble is the growth of choice. More than 80% of American households now get their television via satellite or cable. To them, the broadcast channels are just items on a menu containing hundreds of dishes.”

From the evidence it is clear that consumers are moving from old media to new media, from print and broadcast to the Internet and cable. Back in May 2008, Advertising Age, the barometric publication of the U.S. and global advertising industry reported -"Revenue Grows by 8.6% Propelled by Digital" - that the acknowledged big four of global advertising, Omnicon, WPP, Interpublic, and Publicis generated 12.3% of worldwide revenue from digital services.

One way in which print is seeking to remain relevant is by bridging onto the digital world via QR (quick response) codes. This is a patterned image that contains a URL code or internet address. These codes are placed together with their print ads in magazines (they have been and are used in billboard and bus advertising as well) and allow the reader with a cell phone camera to photograph the image and then 'dial' or link to the company’s web site via the stored code to make further enquiries of the product or service being advertised. QR codes have been in use in Japan, where they were developed, since the mid 90s. They are now gaining greater attention in Western media markets. (See the QR Image code created for this blog in the right menu: visit to do the same or any other QR code generator web sites.)

Our local media environment has grown tremendously in the last two decades. From the listing provided on the TTPBA (Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association) Web site, there are some 37 FM radio stations and 10 television stations. There are three television subscription companies. Along with these we have three dailies, about a half dozen weekly newspapers and just over a dozen local magazines. With a population of only just under 1.25 million (according to the CIA Factbook Web site) it certainly does seem like a challenge for all these media entities to survive. However, according the Trinidad and Tobago Business Guide 2008/2009 (a 'Business Guide 2009/10 is already available), unlike other markets, local “newspaper circulation continues to grow compared to circulation decline of newspapers globally.”

Whether this remains the case as we attain greater online penetration remains to be seen. All three dailies provide significant free online content and if advertising revenues do become tight perhaps there might be some changes to this in the future. In terms of circulation figures, again according to the local business guide, the Express leads with 75,000, Newsday 65,000, and the Guardian 45,000. And perhaps as some tell-tale sign of desiring increased revenue, all three dailies have recently increased their cover price from $1 to $2. The overall local advertising spend however continues to grow from TT$253M in 2005 to TT$330M 2006. For 2007, the Who’s Who in Trinidad and Tobago Business Web site estimated the local advertising spend at TT$636M. Despite such figures, Gayelle however was forced to close its news department as the station’s ad revenues were down 50% as stated by its Executive Director, Errol Fabien.

In a related issue of Caribbean media, from several media reports earlier this month, Michael Lee-Chin, the billionaire Jamaican–Canadian investor, announced that a deal was close at hand for the total or partial sale of Columbus Communications Inc, his cable television Internet service provider and digital telephony company (which operates in 21 countries throughout the Caribbean (including Trinidad and Tobago where it trades as Flow) and Latin America. The deal according to a Gleaner report is to help AIC Barbados (the holding company for Mr. Lee-Chin’s Caribbean businesses) pay off US$170M in principal and interest on maturing promissory notes held by Jamaican investors.

According the the Gleaner (Lee-Chin to Announce AIC Asset Sale - Flow could provide J$15B financier needs to pay debts), Lee-Chin bought Columbus from a consortium of telecom firms in 2004 for US$80M and at present the company is said to be worth between US$200M to US$300M. The lead rumored buyer in the Columbus deal is Carlos Slim Helu (one of the world’s top three richest men) who owns América Móvil, the holding company of Claro, the latest entrant in the Jamaican wireless telephone market. América Móvil operates in 17 countries across the hemisphere.

From all this, it is typically clear that those with ample funds are more likely to weather and adjust accordingly when bad economic storms form. With the government bailout of the CL Financial Group, it seems that its subsidiary CL Communications, with its three radio stations (90.5, Music Radio 97, and Ebony 104), have been spared any woes. However, not too far afield in the region, it still remains unknown if the Antigua Sun, or the Sun St. Kitts/Nevis newspapers, both subsidiaries of Sun Printing & Publishing Ltd, owned by Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, now under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, will suffer any consequences as a result of their flamboyant owner’s current troubles.

Gayelle is not as well heeled as these other media entities. Hopefully, for their sake, they just had a slip and lost their rhythm with the lam-weh in the gayelle that is the business world and has not suffered a serious blow from the bois of a beleaguered economy. Advertising is the fuel and food of media…and so Gayelle may well question, alas yet again, whether the dish (or the cable) has run away with its spoon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Citizen's Trust

"If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists - to protect them and to promote their common welfare - all else is lost."

Barack Obama

Arguably, it can seem understandable from a government perspective, that when people do talk and write, complaining about all things government, that it seems as if such people are all anti-government. But governments, just like any other organisation or individual, are not perfect and must be able to accept and learn from fair criticism. There are though, degrees of governmental error from simple careless mistakes to downright ineptitude, indifference, and arrogance, just as there are degrees of public complaint, from basic letters to the editor, to massive all-out protest marches, and riots. Ideally, surely everyone wishes that such relational breakdowns would not occur but such is part of the inevitabilities of human existence.

There is the view too from the governmental or status quo side, that tends to look at people who do stir up protest, as troublemakers, rabble-rousers, and such like. And from the public complaint side, there are many, as protesters, or who see themselves as some conscience of the government, who actually welcome and relish the idea of being so labeled, finding identity with the likes of so many famed, and not so famous personages of protest throughout history.

Complaint and protest are healthy checks on government power nonetheless, just as the formalised separate branches of democratic governments are established to curb excesses in each other. Any government that claims to look out for the interest of its citizens would or should acknowledge this and have adequate measures in place to accommodate feedback from their citizens on how they are performing. But creating such avenues for feedback and redress are futile and creates distrust if in the end the government does nothing to improve its act. The people’s assessment of the government then redounds to the cynical description of ‘all talk and no action,’ and trust is broken. Trust, we all know, lies at the heart of any relationship and between governments and their citizens it is no less. In a paper, Building Trust in Government by Improving Governance, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes

“ Failed states, revolutions, civil wars, and other related traumatic failures of governance all share in common the absence or collapse of trust: between citizens and the state, between different political factions or parties, and between ethnic, social or class groups at the mass level.”

Perhaps another way to look at the situation of complaints and protest against government is not so much in the vein of being anti-government, but rather as being 'pro-people' or 'pro-citizen.' Undoubtedly, some may argue that this is all just an artifice of semantics and spin as we all are accustomed to see government and corporate officials do. Yet, conversely too, it must be acknowledged that the way we do configure concepts in our heads tends to determine how we then think of them and consequently how we act accordingly.

In fact, what government hasn’t been elected because they clothed themselves in the mantle of being 'pro-people'? Essentially, we all know, ‘the people’ is what actually society is all about with government being the pre-eminent and formal body, so formed, to get the people’s work done for them. So when governments do, or at least appear to act in the people’s interest, then the need or desire to be anti-government is a non sequitur and does not arise. But regardless of labels, 'anti-government' or 'pro-people,' the core issue for citizens is for the government to do what is right. It is just wholly unfortunate in some countries where as Voltaire once said “it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”

But systems have and continue to be developed by the U.N. and other international agencies and by forward thinking governments, at national and local levels, to encourage stronger bonds and accountability and, of course, trust between them and their citizens. In a report titled Engaging Citizens in Measuring and Reporting Community Conditions, Alfred Ho, a professor from Indiana University, examines two case studies, one from Des Moines Iowa, the other from Boston Massachusetts:

“The two case studies show how local public officials can work effectively with citizen representatives and community leaders to define the critical issues in public policies and community conditions, develop specific indicators to measure progress, and engage elected officials and the public in using the data to guide policy making.”

Edelman, a large, self-described independent U.S. P.R. (public relations) firm, has been conducting what it calls its Trust Barometer Survey for the past ten years (surely there are some readers now wondering about the veracity of a report on trust from a P.R. firm). For this year (2009) the survey consisted of just under 4500 persons in 20 countries across five continents. In the report (Edelman TrustBarometer 2009), business was trusted more than governments in 13 of the 20 markets surveyed and trust in government remained steady or declined in 12 of the markets surveyed.

Trust too is also about the average citizen believing that he or she can bring about positive change in the society. In essence, it is about trust in virtue and natural justice. What works against this however is what Paul Rogat Loeb describes in his book Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Cynical Time where (although it speaks to and of its U.S. audience, his words are applicable to us as well),

“We mistrust our ability to make a difference. The magnitude of the issues at hand coupled with a sense of powerlessness has led far too many of us to conclude that social involvement isn’t worth the cost."

Our hope and so our trust in a better view of our future becomes halted by cynicism, which Loeb describes as a cynicism that “implies no institutions, truths, or community bonds are worth fighting for.”

As such, in our criticism of government, we must caution ourselves to never become so cynical as to believe things can never be improved. And we should always recognise that we have a role as well as a responsibility in helping direct the government to do that which is right by us, its people.

With greater use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by government agencies the concept of e-government has and continues to grow. However, government services so described do tend to bear expectations of greater speed and efficiency from citizens. Therefore, in a modern ironic twist, via less physical interaction, greater trust is hoped for and can be developed through greater efficiency of services in this way: for essentially, improved service is ideally what the public desires and of course deserves. So surely this is a way to build trust at one level and particularly so with a developing country such as ours where long lines and long waits and gaps in communication still typically remain the fare for government services.

However too, at present in Trinidad and Tobago, we are awash in questions about government trust. This stems from the governments’ initial statements about the global economic meltdown not having an impact on us, to later contrarily imploring us to tighten our belts, the current UDeCOTT (Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago) Commission of Enquiry and the findings so far revealed, the issue of whether our Minister of Finance acted in conflict of interest and whether she was outright dishonest to Parliament, and of course the still absence of an Integrity Committee to complement our Integrity legislation.

In building trust though we must not and never forget that truth should be intrinsic to it. After all, it is the con (confidence) artist who gains your trust, only to deceive you; so true trust cannot be said to exist without truth being in effect. In this age of greater technological connectedness we can only hope that profound substantive connectedness i.e. trust, grows in tandem with all the social networks we form. For with the marvels of technology these days, we have all seen how things and people can be virtually changed, created, and appear to be in places where they really aren’t. Students now too, to a greater degree and professional writers as well, despite all the information available via the web, appear to be resorting to increasing levels of plagiarism.

We all know the famous Abraham Lincoln quote:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

This quote though, I believe, is only true as far as we are vigilant enough to make it so.