Jones P Madeira is not just the former editor in chief of two daily newspapers, or the man who was at the helm at TTT when the staff of the television station was taken hostage in the 1990 attempted coup by the Jamaat al Muslimeen in July 1990.
Jones P Madeira received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) for public service and journalism at the National Awards ceremony on Republic Day, in a career that spans 50 years in print, radio, television and communications. PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI
He was also a quiet figure behind a range of initiatives which expanded the reach and influence of radio and television both locally and regionally.
“I was part of a troika at the Caricom Secretariat in Guyana that led the way for greater co-operation and collaboration among broadcasting systems in the region so that our people could see and hear and read about themselves and I am very proud of the work we did in that regard,” Madeira says.
He cited the growth of the indigenous Caribbean News Agency (CANA) which succeeded the British owned Reuters, as well as the deepening of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) which put regional broadcasting on a new plain that included material exchanges and training for broadcasters across the Caribbean. And he credits late Guyanese international executive Hugh Cholmondeley and TT broadcaster, Dik Henderson, as more than significant pioneers in that body of work.
Madeira, who until recently was editor in chief of Newsday, and now executive editorial consultant to the company, received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) in the spheres of Public Service and Journalism during the National Awards ceremony at the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port of Spain on September 24.
And although he was not aware of the exact reasoning behind the National Awards Committee’s choice to award him, the 74-year-old journalist had some ideas.
“I’m certain there are others who are more deserving of the award than I am, so I will wear the medal for them until their turn comes, but I am not going to second guess anyone who had a hand in my nomination,” he said. “But I have been in the trenches of journalism and related work for more than five decades not looking for any particular accolade except for doing my work well.”
Black Power to BBC
He remembers his coverage of the Black Power uprising including the army rebellion and the related state of emergency in 1970 for instance as a special events announcer/reporter with NBS Radio 610.
He told Sunday Newsday, “I covered all of the events – the almost daily rallies in Woodford Square and the countless street marches by thousands of youths with clenched fists punching the air with the accompanying shouts of ‘power to the people,’ their march in particular to Caroni under the banner “Indians and Africans unite,” their storming the Roman Catholic cathedral in Port of Spain, and the actual declaration of the state of emergency which caught me by surprise while on the road to Chaguanas to cover a demonstration by sugar workers.
Jones P Madeira, in an interview at his Arima home, shares his experiences as a journalist from the 1970 Black Power unrest, the 1990 attempted coup to pioneering work in Caribbean broadcast journalism and public health communications. PHOTO BY AZLAN MOHAMMED
“I hurried back to town to find downtown desolated, but the sound of gunshots drew me to upper Frederick and Henry streets straight into thick smoke coming from a Bata shoe store which was set ablaze, and the descent of policemen running all over the place discharging their noisy 303 ominously and thrusting their gun butts violently at people who were trying to get out of the area. Then up to the hospital where I saw a youngster lying on a desk, his eyes wide open. I started a conversation with him only to discover a minute later I was talking to a corpse, shot at the back of the head when the gunfire started.”
The next year, Madeira received a fellowship to the BBC in London, and after his performance there was offered a position in the Overseas Regional Service producing daily transmissions to the Caribbean to replace another Trinidadian now Sir Trevor Mc Donald.
He was particularly impressed with the BBC’s approach to the coverage of events including parliamentary sittings, and he yearned to return to Trinidad to implement some of the ideas.
“It instilled in me the feeling that broadcasting, and journalism should be practised in the field, on site wherever the action was, especially in the communities because too many people in our country are disenfranchised by not having channels exposed to them to have their voices heard.”
Therefore, when he returned to TT as senior producer, news and current affairs at 610 Radio, he attempted to apply that ideology to local broadcasting. He said he felt citizens waited too long to learn for instance about the decisions made on their behalf in the Parliament.
There were no live reports as such, and Parliament was rarely heard anywhere other than on the Government Information Service broadcast at 8 pm.
He felt the situation needed to be rectified, especially when it came to the budget presentation where the only voice one heard was that of the finance minister.
So adamant was the government in relation to a desire not to cover more of Parliament that the information minister at the time went personally to the electrical outlets and yanked forcefully at the power chord to shut down the television lights.
“I lobbied the government successfully to have the opposition leader’s presentation carried live, and to have our cameras record entire debates for culling in our news presentations. I remember the leader of government business in the house, Overand Padmore, telling me that would never be agreed to by the government, but he would try. Surprisingly he would return some days later to inform me that they would agree for the opposition leader’s response to the budget to be carried live but on the condition that the government would have the last say and the winding up by the prime minister must be carried live also. I agreed immediately and so expanded coverage by the electronic media became a reality and a feature of the Parliament. I recruited a close colleague, Raoul Pantin, to produce a summary of parliamentary sittings whenever they occurred.”
1990 attempted coup
“Raoul was doing just that when the Jamaat al Muslimeen’s gunmen rushed the TTT compound on the afternoon of July 27, 1990. He became one of the first hostages and I still have the vision of Raoul being marched by a gun toting young man. I was held next. We would be pushed to the floor and ordered not to lift our heads if we did not want them blown off.
“I would be singled out by the Jamaat, Abu Bakr in particular, to take the leadership role between the hostages and our captors and even the remnants of the ‘fallen’ government of ANR Robinson on the outside.”
For five days and six nights, he and the others were held hostage, and he also had to broadcast under duress. His said his aim was to be positive and calm, and not to do anything that would create panic. He said when he was made to announce on air, he had to be careful not to sound as if he were on the side of the Jamaat, and to make people understand that he was not in control of the information he was conveying.
“If there is one thing in my career that I would forever remember, I remember all of the hostages, especially Raoul Pantin, who went through those very dark days and night, expecting that any sound we heard could be our last. And I think of the confidence they gave me to serve as the conduit between hostages and the insurgents, between the representatives of the government on the outside and the leadership of the Jamaat al Muslimeen on the inside… I leave the extent of any success for others to judge, but I was regaled by the recognition of the Express newspapers who cited and honoured me for that role.”
The Panday effect
Although 1990 was traumatic, Madeira said the worst experience in his professional life was his encounter with prime minister Basdeo Panday who called him a “vicious spiteful racist” as part of his venting over an editorial in the Guardian which he presided over as editor in chief.
“I did not sleep for nights because I found myself wanting to confront Panday for the most unjustifiable slur,” he recalls. Together with the entire editorial management team he walked off his job at the Guardian when the company’s response to the Panday attack, including editorial outlook, was soft. He became one of the pioneers of the Independent newspaper which was formed and operated by journalists under Maxie Cuffie (now La Horquetta/Talparo MP).
Today however, he said he could made light of those days with Panday embracing him and his family warmly at last week’s national awards event at NAPA.
He felt he became a better person following the row with the Panday administration. It enabled him to enter another arena of public service – the battle against HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean. He worked with a team of the Special Programme on Sexually Transmitted Infections (SPSTI) of the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC) in Port of Spain, travelling throughout the region, working with journalists to sensitise their principals to the ravages of the epidemic and leveraging their cooperation to play a role.
In addition to all this, as head of news and current affairs at TTT and a member of the board of the CBU, Madeira and German, Michael Abend, pioneered the once popular regional television programme, CaribScope.
Under this project, Madeira sent teams across the Caribbean to produce features on varying aspects of regional life, history and culture, touching communities that had never been seen or heard about on Caribbean radio and television. They also produced live coverage of major events and exchanged the programmes across the region.
“The CBU gave me the nod to head the Caribvision project for which I had successfully pleaded at the level of the West German Fredrich Ebert Stiftung foundation who sent out a news exchange expert, Michael Abend to assist its development. I worked and designed with him all those things that you see now that are regional broadcasting. It has its roots in what we did.”
He also organised training programme for journalists, drawing on international expertise to which he was exposed at the time, or conducted training programmes himself.
For his role in the development of broadcasting in the region, Madeira was inducted into the Caribbean Broadcasting Hall of Fame.