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The anchor stands alone

February 16, 2011

Colleen Holder makes the courageous decision to leave CNMG in protest against colleague Fazeer Mohammed’s sudden firing.

Former CNMG news anchor and producer Colleen Holder

During the week following the controversial firing of talk show host Fazeer Mohammed, the mood among staff at the state-owned television station where he’d co-hosted the early-morning program First Up was heavy, weighted by tension, irritation, “a lot of uncertainty” and “a lot of anxiety,” recalled Colleen Holder, who had been the show’s news anchor.

Mohammed was let go without notice last November after a contentious interview with Minister of Foreign Affairs Suruj Rambachan in which the minister demanded to know if Mohammed’s Muslim faith meant he objected to female leadership, particularly that of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Mohammed, celebrated for his frank and opinionated style, denied the charge and, according to accounts, the two men parted cordially.

Then Mohammed received word two days later – on a Saturday after a holiday – that he would no longer be hosting the show. The station, part of the Caribbean New Media Group or CNMG, said the move was a cost-cutting measure. But Mohammed and many others suspect he was fired solely for displeasing the political party in power.

“Staff were very upset,” said Holder, as she sat bathed in sunshine on a bench in front of Laventille Open Bible Standard Church’s after-school center, where she helps administer a child sponsorship program that provides books and food for needy students. Her hair is in the short afro news viewers have become accustomed to. Her bespectacled face is otherwise unadorned.

“I felt so aggrieved. It just was so unjust. Then you go on the set and every day you have to pretend as though Fazeer never existed”

“Upset because of the way it happened,” she said. “Upset because the people who of course would have seen the show would have put two and two together and said, ‘Well, it looks like victimization. It looks like he is being punished for disagreeing with this man.’ And then of course there were the concerns about ‘Well, am I going to lose my job too? What is happening?’”

An outraged Holder began thinking of leaving but decided to wait and see how things would play out.

Almost a week later, the prime minister returned from the US, where she had been since Mohammed’s firing, missing the ensuing maelstrom that included demonstrations from Muslims outside CNMG’s offices in St. Clair. At a press conference in the Diplomatic Lounge of the Piarco International Airport, Persad-Bissessar, sounding wooden and disengaged – possibly due to weariness – as she repeated the phrase “I have been advised…,” offered no reprieve.

“Management did not terminate Mr. Mohammed’s appointment…,” she said. “He was informed that there would be further discussions with respect to placing him where they felt his competencies would be best.”

It was a bitter moment for Holder.

“Somewhere along the line I had false hope that this situation would blow over. Faz would come back next Monday morning,” she said. “I realized that when I was watching the prime minister at Piarco, then I spoke to Faz after that, and then we realize …” She gave a short, sharp sigh. “He ain’t coming back.”

Holder submitted her resignation the following day and delivered her last news cast on Dec. 12th, giving a brief farewell in which she wished viewers and staff “all the best” for the new year. (Nevertheless, she said, some people still ask if she’s on vacation.)

“I had no plans,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. I just knew that this situation irritated me and I couldn’t stay.”

She was the only member of staff to quit on principle, in a move reminiscent of the one that a group of Guardian journalists took in 1996 after what they perceived as political interference in the running of the paper.

“I felt a little humbled by the fact that she would chose to resign over the way that I was treated,” said Mohammed. “I think it confirms that she’s a better person than me. I would like to think that I would do it, but I have to be honest and say that there’s an element of selfishness and ego to my personality that might actually get in the way.

“I could say without fear of contradiction that the way she went about it shows a kind of strength of character that I’m not sure I have,” he added.

First Up debuted in 2007, quickly becoming a worthy rival to morning shows on CNC3 and TV6. Specific figures aren’t available but many observers believe that with Mohammed and co-host Jessie-May Ventour it became a popular show with a loyal following.

The only morning show with an active one, its Facebook fan page has more than 3,500 followers, whose posts would sometimes be responded to and read on air. Ventour also read texts and fielded phone calls from viewers or – because the show was simultaneously broadcast on CNMG radio station 91.1 FM – listeners.
On Facebook fans would occasionally tease or compliment the hosts, referring to them by their first names. First Up, it seemed, had birthed a thriving fan community.

That feeling extended to the set. The on-air team had a palpable chemistry, with Holder – unusual for a local anchor – exchanging spirited, often opinionated, banter with Mohammed about topics that were engaging the national attention or that came from who-knows-where to Mohammed’s mind. Once he’d asked her what job she’d dreamed of doing other than her current one. Without hesitation, Holder said a mechanic.

“Faz was really well liked. He was easy to talk to. He was not a diva at all. The only issue Faz had was that he refused to wear a jacket,” said Holder, who joined the First Up team in May 2009. She’d previously anchored the TV6 evening news and first met Mohammed through her father, McDonald Holder, the assistant program manager who’d worked with Mohammed at Radio Trinidad, where he’d helped Mohammed start and build a highly regarded career as a cricket commentator. McDonald died in 2006 from prostate cancer.

“We had a really comfortable morning group,” said Holder. “It was fun, and it was never stuffy, it was never boring, it was never stiff. Even on the days I didn’t know what Faz was going to ask, it was never – ‘Oh my God, what is he going to ask me. I’m trembling!’ No. It was always, ‘Ah can’t wait to hear the stupid question Faz going to ask me today so I could put him in his place.’” The last was said in the teasingly challenging tone she would sometimes adopt with Mohammed on-air.

“I think Colleen was sufficiently comfortable in her own skin to basically be able to deal with anything,” Mohammed said of his former colleague. “And she wasn’t afraid to express her own opinion.”

Mohammed suggested that the sense of being part of something special added to staff’s dismay after he was fired.

“The feeling was that we were all building this product together from scratch, and to have it short-circuited like that was quite upsetting for some people,” he said.

What made things worse was how the firing was communicated – or not communicated – to staff. Holder said she heard of the decision from a production assistant the night before the first show without Mohammed. Other members of the production team had not heard and, according to Holder, one of them upon seeing Andy Johnson – the veteran journalist who now heads the Government Information Services and who briefly replaced Mohammed – asked him if he was there as a guest.

“To this day there’s not been a memo to staff to say, ‘This has happened. We acknowledge that X has happened, Faz is no longer here, but we’re pressing on.’ Nothing like that,” said Holder.

“Faz was really well liked. He was easy to talk to. He was not a diva at all. The only issue Faz had was that he refused to wear a jacket”

She recalled that first day without Mohammed.

“Jess and I got to work at five for make up. We were in a quandary as to what do we say,” she said. “Cause we weren’t told through official channels that he’s not coming back. He wasn’t on the set so it was just the two of us. It was just an air of confusion. We were uncomfortable, we weren’t sure what to say, we weren’t sure what happened.”

The lack of proper communication made the staff feel “completely disrespected,” Holder said.

Mohammed tried but could not convince her to stay.

“I felt so aggrieved. It just was so unjust. Then you go on the set and every day you have to pretend as though Fazeer never existed,” she said. “You can’t call his name, and then of course (on) all the call-in programs nobody wants to talk about the economy, they want to talk about Fazeer. And we can’t talk about it. So what are we supposed to do?

“It was uncomfortable,” she said, “and I kept feeling like I’m coming on the set, and I’m sitting down here every day, and I just feel as though I’m condoning what happened, and I don’t agree with what happened. I don’t agree with how the situation was handled. And I can’t just sit by and pretend like nothing happened.”

Mohammed said knowing Colleen’s father prepared him for her action. “He was a man very quiet, very soft spoken, very respected,” he said. “But he didn’t like nonsense. He didn’t like foolishness.”

Holder is now managing communications for a fledgling mobile phone services company. Her current boss, David Williams, heard her Dec. 12th farewell announcement and called her the next day. Williams’ partner, Cleve Bascombe, has sat on charity boards with her and recommended her.

Williams speaks glowingly of his new hire, an attitude reflected by Tony Fraser, long-time journalist and consultant at CNMG, who called Holder “an excellent young lady in every way.” Fraser had invited Colleen to join the CNMG staff. She anchored and produced the morning, midday, weekend and sometimes evening TV news casts. She also produced the weekend radio news.

Holder, 38, calls herself a workaholic. Once during her time at TV6 she was forced to take a week off with doctor’s leave after her body “just shut down,” she said. She left TV6 in 2007 and took a two-year break, spending a small part of that time travelling to China, Italy, France, and England.

The flexibility to make moves like this is partly facilitated by an inheritance left by her father, which she’d invested in two companies. It’s also part of a worldview she’s had since childhood that there’s more to life “than just going to work and going to school.” A deeply religious person, she even harbors dreams of becoming a missionary. An attempt at a missionary excursion to Australia in 2001 had to be abandoned because of the terrorist attacks in the US.

Asked if he was surprised that CNMG would let someone he considers such an asset walk away, Williams responded: “Well, remember they also released Fazeer as well, right?

“The chemistry that they had on the television would have played out in real life,” said Williams, a regular First Up viewer. “So one should really not be surprised by her leaving. I was surprised that Jessie stayed.”

Jessie-May Ventour was asked through a phone call to be interviewed for this article and insisted that questions be posed and answered via e-mail. “I need to get clearance,” she explained. She has yet to respond to the e-mailed questions.

CNMG CEO Ken Ali, who assumed his post just before the firing, was asked to comment on Holder’s resignation. He said: “I don’t know her from Adam. She resigned within days of me coming here. I never got a chance to assess her. Next thing I heard she had resigned. She never consulted me, never told me she had an issue.” He refused further comment.

Holder contends Ali’s description of events.

“I gave a month’s notice before I left C,” she said in an e-mail response. “Mr. Ali was CEO and in office all that time I was still there. A couple of days after I handed in my resignation I was told that he wanted to see me and he would let me know when, but that call never came. And since when does any staff member ‘consult’ the CEO when they have issues? Did he ‘consult’ Fazeer?”

Holder, who has no children and is unmarried, said she doesn’t hold it against anyone for not making the same decision she did.

“People have commitments to meet. I didn’t do it for anybody to follow me,” she said. “I’m not condemning anybody. I’m just saying that’s how I felt. I could not go forward, and I took my own personal stand.”

  • Videos
  • Colleen Holder anchors her final news cast at CNMG

    A TV6 report on Fazeer Mohammed’s firing

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