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Trinidad & Tobago’s arrest of Canadian vlogger ‘Chris Must List’ raises questions about much more than the law

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Screenshot of Canadian vlogger Christopher Hughes (yellow hat) in Trinidad, May 2024, taken from the video entitled ‘Port of Spain Peace Walk: ‘A Mother’s Cry’ Demands End to Gang Violence’ on the Chris Must List YouTube channel.

Self-described “world traveller” Christopher Hughes, a Canadian vlogger who goes by the moniker “Chris Must List,” the name of his YouTube channel, is known for visiting “no-go zones” in various countries, most of them in the developing world (and of those, many in the Caribbean).

His most recent stop was the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago where, in mid-May, he began uploading videos of his daily forays into pockets of urban communities, locally referred to as “hotspots,” which struggle with gang-related violence. Residents have little trust in the police, who are often accused of vigilantism and extrajudicial killings.

The videos were attracting lots of views and, by May 27, even broader attention as the vlogger was interviewed on CNC Television’s morning show. According to a widely shared voice note, Hughes said a police officer called requesting his assistance with an investigation. The vlogger confirmed that everything he videotaped had been uploaded to YouTube and the police were welcome to use it however they pleased.

The officer insisted that Hughes should come to the police station; when he refused, saying he was about to do a TV appearance, the officer asked if he was sure this was “the way he wanted to go about it.” Taking the question as a threat, once his interview was over, Hughes headed to the Canadian embassy, where he was allegedly told he should get the first flight out of Trinidad. He planned to leave the next day but awoke on May 28 to “police knocking on the door” and “throwing charges” at him. Hughes made it clear in the recording that it’s not that he wouldn’t help the police, but that he had “nothing to do with any crime.”

Initial reports suggested that Hughes was being charged under Trinidad and Tobago’s Anti-Gang and Immigration Acts. According to Section 8 of the Anti-Gang Act, anyone who knowingly provides support — in whatever form — to a gang, is liable upon conviction to a 25-year prison sentence. The Immigration Act was ostensibly referenced because Hughes reportedly entered the country as a tourist, then engaged in paid work via his vlog, which is monetised.

While some social media users were quite prepared to accept that rationale for Hughes’ arrest, others challenged it, citing the changing nature of work and the impact of social media on how people chronicle their lives: “Anybody making YouTube videos should be charged … that’s the precedent they are setting … they will need to clarify this … are we considering YouTube/content creation as work?”

According to Facebook user Christophe Pierre, “While feel good content creators like Ling and Lamb, Wodemaya & Tilo Kruse are being brought to T&T the darker ones like Chris Must List & Timmy Karter are also here. Visit Trinidad you can’t control the narrative.”

Charged under the Sedition Act

By May 29, Hughes was formally charged with “publishing a statement with seditious intention” under the country’s Sedition Act — colonial-era legislation that journalist and independent senator Sunity Maharaj referred to as “a law in search of a crime.”

Making the point that “the value and usefulness of a law depends on its fitness for purpose and enforceability,” Maharaj noted that the Act had originally been passed when the British, “overwhelmed by three years of worker unrest,” used it “with the clear purpose of restoring control by inhibiting free speech and the spread of ideas through publications.” She also recalled that for one month in 2020, the Act “fell off the statute books” following a local ruling “that it was vague, uncertain and could lead to arbitrary application” — a ruling that was later overturned by the Court of Appeal and the latter judgement upheld by the Privy Council.

Suggesting that it was up to the country’s parliament to “take on the challenge of review and change” since “being sound law […] does not necessarily mean that the Sedition Act is today relevant or even useful,” Maharaj concluded: “In a world where anyone can have a global platform for amplified expression and dissemination of ideas, the policing of published content for seditious intent ranks somewhere between futility and farce.”

In the meantime, the law remains on the books, affecting Hughes and others doing this kind of coverage — especially if they’re uploading content while still in the country. A Trinidad and Tobago Express editorial, however, noted the “new evidential standards [required] to successfully prosecute the alleged offence of sedition” — the police must prove that the person being charged published material with an intention to incite violence or public disorder.

Reacting to the charge, Facebook user Abeo Jackson commented, “Sedition, huh? Lol Interesting. The communities beginning to speak the same language and [identify] the boot of the system as the common oppressor is disconcerting for those who benefit from said system. We have no problem with these neocolonial beige folk helicoptering into our spaces and making money off clicks at the expense of our exoticism but when they start getting too close to the ugly underbelly of who we ACTUALLY are and what we perpetuate, SUDDENLY it becomes a problem. […] Capitalism and all its post colonial legacies will be the absolute death of us.”

What about the content?

Quite apart from the fact that many citizens felt, as Maharaj put it, “the jolt of lost innocence, seeing children so matter-of-factly dispensing warnings of no-go zones as they guided the tourist through their own confined spaces of safety,” they also sensed that Hughes’ footage — like some before him — had the sheen of crime tourism, a sequel to the “poorism” that was prevalent over a decade ago.

The fact that these foreign content creators, who are often (though not always) male, white, and from wealthy nations, are typically afforded significant ease of access — from entry into the country to their ability to be welcomed into such communities — rankles many locals.

Hughes addressed this issue himself in a video, saying, “As a YouTuber and a journalist that is white in colour, I find often that when I go to predominantly darker-skinned countries, I get a lot of negative feedback, [like] you’re making us look bad. […] There are always a couple people that don’t want me here with my camera, whether it be that they’re embarrassed of the issues — and I hope they are [because] there’s reason to be embarrassed — there is gang warfare in Trinidad well before I came. […] I am not the cause of the problem nor will I be the solution. I document what I see.”

Although Hughes claims he is “not motivated by views,” he has also said he wants his YouTube channel to reach “a million-plus subscribers.” Doing such coverage, however, without the protective umbrella of a media outlet — and without applying conventional journalistic standards — comes with risks, as Hughes has discovered.

Vlogger or journalist?

Hughes and others doing similar work are engaging in a variety of parachute journalism: venturing into places with little knowledge of the local context and quickly churning out stories based on a limited set of experiences and encounters, then—except in rare cases like Hughes’—returning to the safety of their home countries.

While the Express editorial felt that Hughes “performed a mature journalistic function,” revealing “the true proportions and dimensions of socio-economic neglect and its consequences,” there has been some debate over whether his work meets journalistic standards.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has remained silent on Hughes’ arrest, and the court of public opinion still seems divided on whether he was promoting the gangster life — some police sources believe he provided a platform via which subliminal messages were being sent to warring gangs — or documenting social realities in ways that many local reporters may not have been able to do.

In a vox pop segment on CNC3 Television, however, where members of the public were asked how they felt about Hughes’ arrest, every interviewee said they believed it was wrong.

The subjects of the videos

While Trinidad and Tobago’s minister of national security, Fitzgerald Hinds, fussed about how the gang videos portrayed the country to the world, most netizens agreed that Chris Must List was ultimately drawing attention to life in disadvantaged communities.

Still, many felt that the men highlighted on Hughes’ channel ought to have been the ones arrested. On Facebook, Ian Socapro Henry commented, “Instead of […] using his videos as evidence of what is going on in order to capture the gang leaders [the police] foolishly decided to do the opposite in an effort to save face.”

Chris Ramkissoon added,”[A] YouTuber highlighting the fact that Trinidad in a hot mess … arrest him? 🤷🏾‍♂️ He have the guns? He have money to orchestrate crime? He have the drugs? Is he gang affiliated?”

Nicholas Ramkumar took the opportunity to address the phenomenon of ‘Trinibad” music, noting, “Chris Must List got charged for giving ‘gangs’ a platform to showcase their firepower on YouTube. So what happened to all the ‘gang’ music with weapons and lyrics directly thrown at each other on YouTube with millions of views?”

Others saw the humanity in members of the community, which may be part of what Hughes intended to achieve. Matthew Bain mused, “Listening to them explain why they has guns is so sad; these guys are in a war that they don’t even know why. Those same guns could be sold to probably fund a small business or pay to learn a skill or something.”

Sam John, meanwhile, couldn’t help but notice the naivete of some of the alleged gang members, quipping, “Chris Must List Has Solved 😂 Crime in T&T. [There] has not been 1 Murder in 5 days [and] Gang Members are Hiding from being arrested for appearing in his videos 😭”

Journalist Paolo Kernahan brought the discussion around full circle, saying, “You don’t have to like Chris Must List, but you have to face this truth.”

On June 3, after a long weekend behind bars, Hughes was granted bail in the sum of TTD 100,000 (just under USD 15,000). He was released, but his passport retained. His legal team has applied for habeas corpus in the hope of having his case dealt with expeditiously. In his second court appearance on June 6, he was granted permission to leave the country, but must return before another scheduled court date next week.

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