This time the approach is stealthier. The government forgoes the blunt axe of direct advertisement deprivation. It adopts the circuitous, believed nimble, parsimony of cyberspace. No one is fooled, as another front is opened in the ongoing war on the independent press; and on the exposing of truth.
Against this backdrop, four points must be made: 1) this is not about money; 2) this represents a dark obsession; 3) given local history, the independent press is a public trust; and 4) what says the writing for the future?
Right up front, the money rationale must be turned on its head – it lacks consistency and credibility. After many years and many millions of bailouts, subsidies and self help, there is this professed attempt at frugality and discipline involving pittances. Consider the following. First, the government rejects billions from the British, but tries to save a handful of millions at the expense of two publishing houses. Second, it will not account for untold millions of spending, but redirects a few meagre coppers away from the fourth estate. And third, it is this same allegedly cost-conscious government that overlooks cost overruns in the hundreds of millions, and pretends ignorance over a skimming industry that helps itself to ten per cent project surcharges. All in all, and to paraphrase Senator Everett Dirksen – a million here and a million there, and soon you are talking serious money.
The serious money best represented by largesse cavalierly distributed through tax exemptions and holidays lavished on favoured insiders. On the other hand, there is the shambling appearance of economic queasiness before the two private houses because of the history of – and potential for – blood in the water. When all things are considered, the amount of honest expense for the independents pales into insignificance, given the massive indulgences in other areas. Even so, it is just too costly in terms of risk management, given the possibility of smoking guns and accompanying prints coming to light.
If not about money, then what could be the real reasons for this sinuous ruse?
Given the government’s historical tendencies, it is obvious that there is an uncontrolled desire – an obsession – to be rid of this section of the media, as embodied by Stabroek News and Kaieteur News. It started with demeaning things to undermine and thin resolve: press badges, lock out, expulsion, and denigration. Today, it has broadened the war on the uncooperative press with the full-scale assault embedded in revenue retrenchment and layoff to the web; in effect, crass economic sanctions calculated to spear and gut. But why go to all these lengths? It is because these two despised journalistic heretics will not conform to party and government dictates, and their versions of revealed truth; they refuse to submit to leaders who insist on redacting facts, and the arbitrary classifying and premature archiving of public truths.
As it to be expected, these leaders will go to any extent to attack and distort national dialogues focused on tabling the facts as they occur. They fear discovery, and abhor the stimulation of intellectual ferment. Thus, they reject the pursuit of the constructive, but labour diligently to come up with duplicitous ways to choke and ultimately cripple. This started with Stabroek News and the advertising guillotine; widened with the arrival of a gift wrapped quasi-government sheet; extended to Kaieteur News, and never really stopped.
Needless to say, if this government expended more energy and resources to do things in an upright manner, there would be no need to resort to the squandering of its faculties for disreputable purposes. If it spent the same time that it takes to drum up new stratagems to derail critics, it could arguably do an acceptable job with the nation’s business and monies, and convert some. But it insists on the old confrontational knee-in-the groin approach to exact vengeance on sworn enemies for sins older than the republic.
Having said this, it is undeniable that this latest antagonism represents the conflicting and competing interests of party and government on one side, with that of the press and nation on the other. Is there a way out? There could be, if in this infant democracy, the free thinking press is viewed as a utility – a coal-fired one that provides civic light, stirs mental energy, and generates political heat, which are so necessary for vibrant public opinion and engagement. The negative aspect of this, from the perspective of vulnerable politicians, would be a concern with the emitting of heavy duty soot traceable to them, or heading to blanket them. The fact that there is a necessary tension is appealing; there must be watchdogs that bark. Remember the Watergate crowd, and how it wanted to put choice body parts of the Washington Post’s people in a wringer? Relations should not deteriorate so far, yet considerable maturity is essential in recognizing and accepting the responsibilities of an unfettered press, and one that is unencumbered by fear of recriminations.
This is not recommending government charity through press welfare. Rather, it is what is appropriate and in the national interest, and not the ruling party’s comfort level. In Guyana, there is the need for checks on political immorality, through a necessary public trust and repository of truth and confidence, instead of dissipation through imprudent political practices. The unconnected press fills this role satisfactorily, though not perfectly; every effort should be made to maintain its presence.
If not, this nation will be presented with truth that speaks of no contractual controversies, no ethnic tension, no corruption, and no chronic government failures. Gone will be questions on the shortcomings of the security sector; any reports on compliance audits; and revelations on the myriad of troubling issues. There will be only the hagiography of leaders; and the endless paeans to progress and development disseminated as official truths via state ventriloquists and media mannequins. Bleak days threaten.
Meanwhile, a sharp and draining struggle continues to unfold; it will demand creativity and doggedness from the independents, as they fight for their journalistic lives.