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Trinidad’s prime minister mired in racial politics

August 22, 1997

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) _ Basdeo Panday, Trinidad’s first prime minister of East Indian origin, drew boos when he recently tried to speak to a crowd about racial tension in this twin-island Caribbean nation.

The reason: Many listeners thought Panday himself was to blame for the uneasiness.

He has accused the black-owned news media of slandering his government, and he recently called Ken Gordon, a prominent black media executive, a ``pseudo-racist.″

To jeers, Panday accused his critics of using racism for their own benefit. The roar of disapproval grew when he added that having a prime minister of Indian descent shouldn’t threaten anyone.

The Aug. 6 incident in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad’s capital, embarrassed Panday and his invited guest for Trinidad’s Emancipation Day, Ghanian President Jerry Rawlings. But more importantly, it highlighted deepening mutual suspicions among Indian and black leaders in this racially mixed Caribbean nation.

Blacks and Indians each comprise 40 percent of Trinidad’s 1.3 million people. However, from the time of its independence in 1962 until Panday was elected in 1995, black descendants of African slaves had dominated politics in this former British colony. Indo-Trinidadians have long felt disenfranchised and alienated.

Soon after taking office, Panday waged a campaign to get a black editor of the Trinidad Guardian newspaper fired. He called Jones Madeira ``a racist, intent on destroying″ his government. His anger was prompted by an editorial asking him to back up claims that the opposition planned violent demonstrations.

Madeira resigned several months later, citing ``constant attacks on the press that raise serious doubts about whether there will be a free environment.″

The black-dominated People’s National Movement of former Prime Minister Patrick Manning claims Panday has carried out a witch hunt against chief executive officers of state enterprises who are of African descent.

In July, the government extended the term of Police Commissioner Noor Mohammed, an Indian, saying it didn’t want to disrupt programs he had put in place. That displeased supporters of the officer next in line, Deputy Police Commissioner Hilton Guy, who is black.

Panday also has proposed legislation he claims would force the news media to be ``fair and impartial,″ following criticism of his government.

Gordon, whose media group, Caribbean Communications Network, is the nation’s largest, says he plans to sue Panday for slander after Panday accused him of trying to ``monopolize his competitors.″

``I call them pseudo-racists,″ Panday said at a public ceremony in June. ``These fellows who use race to look after themselves.″

Gordon resigned as the chairman of BWIA International, the partly state-owned airline, so he could sue Panday.

This month, Panday’s government asked radio and television stations _ including Gordon’s TV-6 network _ to provide it with transcripts of all talk shows. It claims it received numerous complaints from residents _ and some government ministers _ allegedly slandered during call-in programs.

But the effort to tighten controls over Trinidad’s news media has been widely criticized as repressive. Allan Alexander, a senior crown counsel, expressed this rising sentiment during a recent hearing.

``Everybody in Trinidad and Tobago, including owners of the press, are entitled to have political views and to propagate those views,″ he said.

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