Trinidad and Tobago

By Marybeth Glasheen

I. Introduction 

The flag of Trinidad and Tobago was adopted after declaring independence from the United Kingdom on August 31, 1962.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is relatively free in terms of speech and press. When compared to more developed countries such as the United States, and when compared to more underdeveloped countries such as Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago lands in between the two, but with a strong leaning towards the United States in terms of freedom. According to Freedom House, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is ranked 82 out of 100 in 2018 for their aggregate freedom score, with 0 being the least free and 100 being the freest. Their freedom rating is a 1.5 out of 7, their political rights rank a 2 out of 7 and their civil liberties are ranked a 1 out of 7. All of the rankings maintain the standard of 0 being the freest and the higher the number, the less free the country. As of 2019, Trinidad and Tobago has remained in the exact same ranks according to Freedom House. Even though the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is doing well in terms of freedom of speech and press nowadays, the small country has not always been this free. In just 2014, in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, Trinidad and Tobago ranked 43rd place, which corresponds to a “satisfactory situation.” In the same year, Freedom House classified Trinidad and Tobago as “free” in terms of press freedom, which is the highest level available. As of 2019, Reporters Without Borders classified Trinidad and Tobago in 39th place, with 1 being the freest and 180 being the least free. From 2014 until present, Trinidad and Tobago’s Press Freedom Index has slightly fluctuated from 43rd place in 2014, to 41st place in 2015, then down to 44th in 2016, all the way up to 34th in 2017, and then to 39th in 2018 and 2019. 

II. Historical Background

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a Caribbean island, and its capital is called the Port of Spain. Trinidad and Tobago’s major language is English, and the major religions are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has had a long history of invasion and conquest by many different competing European countries and until 1888, Trinidad and Tobago were separate territories. Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of 1.3 million, is one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean, due to its large reserves of oil and gas, according to BBC News.

Trinidad, which was originally named Lere meaning hummingbird by the indigenous Arawak inhabitants, was first claimed for the Spanish by the explorer and conqueror Christopher Columbus in 1498. The Spanish colony that developed was eventually raided many different times throughout the 17th century by the English, Dutch and French. A plantation economy soon developed due to the large-scale importation of African slaves. The arrival of French Haitians then swelled the settler population. In 1797, a British expedition overtook Trinidad and the island then became a British colony in 1802. Finally, in 1834, slaves were emancipated with the adoption of free trade shortly after in 1846 and the population of Trinidad grew when over 150,000 immigrants from India, China and Madeira were brought in between the years of 1845 and 1917.

Trinidad’s partner, Tobago, got its name from the Caribbean word Tavaco, which is the pipe used by people who smoked tobacco leaves. At the time of Columbus’ visit in 1498, Tobago was inhabited by the Caribs. When 300 Dutch settlers arrived in 1632, all of the original inhabitants had been already killed. Out of all of the other Caribbean territories, Tobago had changed ownership more often than any other between 1650 and 1814, from France, to London, to England. Eventually, in the 1920s as the labor movement began to grow and organize trade unions, pressure then increased for greater local democracy and then further, independence. Finally, a new constitution brought limited electoral representation to Trinidad for the first time. In Tobago, there had been elections previously. Although democracy was growing, this form of limited government was not satisfactory for the growing demand for political expression. Ultimately, the dissatisfaction of the people of Trinidad and Tobago led to labor turmoil in 1937. By 1950, the people felt it was time for a change and the constitution was redrawn, which was followed by further constitutional changes. Trinidad and Tobago became one of the co-founders of the Federation of the West Indies, with the goal of becoming an independent country, but after Jamaica withdrew in 1961, Trinidad and Tobago decided to seek its own independence as well. Constitutional dialogue with the United Kingdom began, and after much discussion, a draft constitution was drawn into existence. Finally, Trinidad and Tobago gained its independence in August 1962 and then became a republic in 1976. 

Overall, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is one of the more relatively free countries in the world, in more than just speech and press. Freedom of religion in Trinidad and Tobago is protected in their Constitution, protecting the “freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance” and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the U.S. Department of State, there were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or any credible reports that the government monitored online activities. Any individuals or groups are allowed to engage in expression of views through use of the internet and there are no government restrictions on academic freedom, cultural events, freedom of assembly or association. In the case of state emergency, authorities typically prohibit most public assemblies which can include organized labor marches, political rallies, and religious events. The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. However, similarly to public assemblies, during a state of emergency, the government can limit freedoms such as imposing a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew in six areas of the country including the capital. In terms of freedoms for refugees and those seeking asylum within the country, the government cooperates with the Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations to be able to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

III. Free Speech

Freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed to the constituents of Trinidad and Tobago, and this is generally upheld when in practice. The press outlets are all privately owned and operated. In terms of academic freedom, and the educational system being free from political indoctrination, academic freedom is typically upheld and protected by the constitution. Individuals are free to express their own political or any opinions for that matter without having to worry about surveillance or retributions, as the government is not known to monitor conversations or communications. Because of its relatively new constitution and practice of free speech, the country has yet to encounter a major case regarding freedom of speech, as most of the government’s focus is on media and news outlets which falls under the freedom of the press principle.  Despite there being few instances to court cases in regards to free speech, constituents in the country are able to practice their right to freedom of speech and expression through mostly peaceful protests and rallies. For example, in 2017 Trinidad hosted their annual pre-lent carnival. The annual carnival is full of booze and dancing women, but in 2017, women decided to make a stand for themselves. 76-year-old music legend Calypso Rose performed a song that was titled “Leave Me Alone” and is being labeled a feminist anthem. The song features a woman trying to party in the streets without interference from men, telling them to “leave me, let me free up.” This is a great example of women in Trinidad exercising their right to speak freely, or rather sing. There are many examples of protests other than this one, including oil union trade workers marching to receive national support, and other smaller protests to draw attention to inadequate roads, water supply and community safety. The government of Trinidad and Tobago have no problem with their citizens exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, as long as they remain peaceful. It seems as if the protests do typically remain nonviolent due to the fact that after one specific rally that turned violent[MGD1] . Following the rally, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith apologized for the way the police department and officers handled the rioting crowd. His calling the incident “unfortunate” and apologizing for the way it was handled suggests that violent protests are not common. A broad internet search yielded few incidents of free speech suppression in recent years and historically; rather, it appears to show how well the Trinidad and Tobago government is handling and protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of speech.

IV. Free Press

In 2012, there were some cases against journalists concerning libel, but in 2013 there were no cases brought forth and strong efforts were made to exempt investigative journalists from such charges. According to Reporters Without Borders, Trinidad and Tobago’s highly controversial Libel and Defamation Act was partly amended in 2014, but “malicious defamatory libel known to be false” is still punishable by up to two years in prison as well as a fine.

Reportedly, there were some occasional attempts to influence the press by politicians. For example, in 2013, three senior journalists resigned from the Trinidad Guardian, a press outlet, in order to protest alleged governmental interference. Another example was an alleged governmental so called “smear campaign” against two journalists who had inspected the actions of the national security minister and the attorney general[MGD2] . Most of the media outlets in Trinidad and Tobago are privately owned, but those in which the government receives favorable coverage get perks such as better advertising deals. There are several pieces of legislation in the works which include the Cybercrime Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Data Protection Act, and the Broadcast Code. These pieces of legislation could have a detrimental effect on press freedom and free expression online if they are adopted. In 2017, several reporters were physically assaulted while investigating a story that involved the owner of a private oil company, which is a rare example of violence against journalists that has been unseen in the country in recent years.

V. Critical Comparison

            Journalists and citizens in both the United States and Trinidad and Tobago constantly face similar criticism of their works, but the freedoms extended to them through the law are very similar in both countries. In the case of opposition, the government of Trinidad and Tobago is more likely to take governmental action against people and journalists who they feel abuse their right to freedom of speech. This differs from the United States, where concern is usually given, but legal measures are hardly ever taken with the exception of extreme cases. This is seen most clearly through the instance of libel accusations made against journalists in 2012. This prompted the government to try to enforce strict laws limiting what journalists are able to publish. Although these actions don’t fall through, the government still holds the ability to enforce them should they choose to do so. In the United States, actions like this are far less threatening because of the country’s emphasis on constitutionality and holding free speech as a sacred right, something that is acknowledged, but not as practiced in Caribbean countries. 

            Trinidad and Tobago does its best to emphasize and practice freedom of speech, but it isn’t usually an issue for the government, as they concern themselves more with the media and its actions. Individuals are free to speak out as they please. The hope is that individual criticisms of the government are allowed and not persecuted against by the government. 

            The United States is far more concerned about the free speech of individuals who aren’t journalists as well compared to Trinidad and Tobago. In the U.S., people are able to have much larger platforms and followings to speak their minds compared to people in Trinidad and Tobago. Celebrities and individuals may be criticized, but again legal action is hardly ever taken. 

            In the U.S., media are allowed to construe and interpret situations and are protected even when publishing minor falsities and face no consequences. Trinidad and Tobago differ in this instance as they highly value the truth in their media. But this can also be concerning to an extent. One question that arises is what’s the difference between what the truth to the government’s standards is legal, and what’s the truth to the people.  But this issue is not unique to the Caribbean country, as countries around the world struggle with this issue regularly. 

VI. Conclusion

            Trinidad and Tobago shines a light as one of the best examples of practicing free speech and protecting it legally in the Caribbean. Other countries seem to use them as one of the best examples that upholding this freedom is possible in island countries that are not as large and well developed as the United States. Media groups and activists in Trinidad and Tobago continue to fight against legislation that could potentially inhibit their freedom of press, and the people of the country continue to give them their support so that their freedom of speech is maintained as well. Over its history, Trinidad and Tobago has had much social unrest over past colonialism. After researching examples of protests that have happened throughout Trinidad and Tobago, it can be concluded that the country knows how to have and handle civil protests, unlike some instances in the United States such as Snyder v. Phelps. Their protests have been effective in maintaining peace and order and are not silenced by the government. 

            Journalists within the country hope that further protections of their press rights are upheld and acknowledged by the government considering how critical it is that news outlets are able to report on certain matters, especially governmental ones. Although few very important amendments have been added to Trinidad and Tobago’s constitution, more can still be done to protect journalists and their work. 

            Considering how long ago freedom of speech was adopted in the U.S., it’s no coincidence that their practices are being used as examples to other countries trying to adhere to constitutionality. Trinidad and Tobago seems to continue to use U.S. practices as an example of basic principles of freedom of speech and the press. And hopefully other countries attempting to better develop their constitution can follow Trinidad and Tobago’s ways to uphold their freedoms. 

Works Cited


Cooper, Marta. “Trinidad: Police Raid Newspaper.” Index on Censorship, 11 Jan. 2017, www.indexoncensorship.org/2012/02/trinidad-newsday-police-raid/.

Deane, Catherine, et al. “UPDATE: Trinidad and Tobago Law and Legal Research.” UPDATE: Trinidad and Tobago Law and Legal Research – GlobaLex, 2013, http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Trinidad_Tobago1.html#basiccountryinformation.

Demming, Keita. “TedX Port of Spain’s Challenge: Is Free Speech an Illusion in Trinidad and Tobago?” Wired868, Wired868, 3 Apr. 2017, wired868.com/2016/07/25/tedx-port-of-spains-challenge-is-free-speech-an-illusion-in-trinidad-and-tobago/.

Department of State. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 2011, www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2011humanrightsreport/index.htm?dlid=186546#wrapper.

Global Voices Advox. “Will Trinidad and Tobago’s Cybercrime Bill Stifle Media Freedom?” IFEX, 2018, www.ifex.org/trinidad_and_tobago/2018/06/29/cybercrime-bill/.

“Media Institute of the Caribbean.” Media Institute of the Caribbean, 2018, http://www.mediainstituteofthecaribbean.com/.

Merieux, Margaret De. “Setting the Limits of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in the Commonwealth Caribbean | Legal Studies.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2 Jan. 2018, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/legal-studies/article/setting-the-limits-of-fundamental-rights-and-freedoms-in-the-commonwealth-caribbean/0D7721F68305B72113FA95352EF91A49#.

Political Risk Yearbook: Trinidad & Tobago Country Report, East Syracuse, NY, The PRS Group, December 2016.


“Trinidad and Tobago: Journalistic Rights in Question | Reporters without Borders.” RSF, 2016, rsf.org/en/trinidad-and-tobago.

“Trinidad and Tobago.” Trinidad and Tobago | Freedom House, 11 July 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/trinidad-and-tobago.

York, Jillian C. “This Week in Internet Censorship: Egyptian Blogger on Hunger Strike While China and Trinidad Crack Down.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 10 Apr. 2012, http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/09/week-internet-censorship-egypt-china-trinidad.


This essay was last updated on May 7, 2019.

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