US envoy challenges gov’t over censorship, intimidation of media

– AG says freedoms being abused, urges accountability

More can be done to protect and expand freedom of the press in Guyana, according to US Ambassador Brent Hardt, who on Friday said that government censorship of opposition views on state media is wrong and also called for fair distributing of state advertising.

“There is more that can be done to protect and expand freedom of the press and the free exchange of ideas and perspectives it makes possible,” the diplomat said at a cocktail reception at his residence to mark World Press Freedom day, which was observed yesterday. In the backdrop of a row between Guyana and the US regarding the US implementation of a democracy project in Guyana which government has objected to, Hardt and Minister of Legal Affairs Anil Nandlall squared off, with the ambassador calling out government on the abuse of state media, awarding of broadcasting licences, the distribution of state advertising, direct intimidation of the press and freedom of information.

Nandlall, in response, said that government does not intervene in the content of privately owned and operated media houses. “There is absolutely no attempt by the administration, of which I am a part, to influence what those private media houses publish. None at all. There is no attempt to censor any journalist practicing his trade or professional pursuit in this country,” he said. Nandlall, also the Attorney-General said that while the US calls for press freedom, it took over a decade before the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera was given the green light to operate in the US.

The minister also said that the current environment must be placed in context and referred to when the People’s National Congress (PNC) was in power and the press and media workers were hassled and punished, in contrast to the present where he said that media freedom is being abused. He also said that he is always available to reporters. He said that press freedom must be regulated and there must be accountability.

Government is making every effort to be accountable, he said, and the press must be accountable as well. Hardt had earlier endorsed the findings of a report by the International Press Institute (IPI) that investigated the media landscape in Guyana last year. He recalled statements by IPI’s Executive Director Bethel-McKenzie, who pointed out that “it is highly unusual that a sitting president should also be his or her country’s information minister” and who urged Guyana to end this practice so as to reduce the likelihood of conflicts of interest in dealing with the media. “These are strong words and sound advice from media experts in the Caribbean region,” Hardt said.

 

‘Wrong and unnecessary’

He also pointed to the abuse of state media and the demeaning of what the government terms the opposition press. The ambassador, quoting the IPI report, said that state media continues to be a powerful force but are widely viewed as propaganda vehicles for the government and appear to be frequently abused in order to attack the political opposition. “The United States shares IPI’s belief that state and public media “should represent the views of all political actors in a fair and balanced manner,” Hardt said.

He also said that the use of the term “opposition media” to describe any media institution that is not controlled by the government is demeaning and fails to do justice to the vital role that an independent media must play in a modern, democratic society. “The use of this appellation is also inaccurate. Anyone who reads or watches independent media in Guyana will see that there are letters to the editor supportive of the government, columns that advocate government positions, and generally balanced reporting on actions of government. By contrast, in the state-owned and state-run media, which should hold itself up to an even higher standard of balance by virtue of its being funded by taxpayers, one hardly ever sees a letter to the editor or a column supportive of the opposition or critical of the government,” Hardt said.

“In fact, the public reads about instructions being passed by the government to state-run television criticizing staff for airing statements by an opposition party directly after the government’s position was presented, and indicating that such presentations were only to be aired late at night when viewership was lowest,” he added.

“Such censorship is not only wrong, but completely unnecessary for a government that is more than capable of defending and articulating its views on a fair playing field of public opinion,” the ambassador asserted.

Hardt also pointed out that IPI’s report highlighted that state advertising patterns in Guyana reveal extreme inequalities in the way the advertising is being distributed. He said that such inequalities, which ironically run counter to circulation numbers, are also contrary to Principle 13 of the Inter-American Declaration of principles on Freedom of Expression, which clearly state that “arbitrary and discriminatory placement of official advertising” with intent to punish or reward because of opinions they express threatens freedom of expression. “To meet its international obligations, the Govern-ment of Guyana should therefore ensure that state advertising is distributed fairly and without regard for the editorial stance of a newspaper or television station,” he declared.

The ambassador recalled that when he came to Guyana in 2012, he was surprised that unlike all other Caribbean countries he had visited, Guyana alone had complete state monopoly of the radio. “Where in other countries the radio with its ubiquitous call-in shows was a vital public forum, in Guyana there was no such counterpart. Two years later, it is certainly disappointing that radio in Guyana still falls short of offering an open public square for debate and discussion,” Hardt said.

He pointed to IPI’s report which makes clear that “attempts to diversify the sector have been consistently stonewalled: a number of independent media outlets . . . have had their broadcast applications denied or ignored, in some cases for more than 20 years.” The ambassador recalled that in May 2013, special rapporteurs from the UN, OAS, and OSCE on freedom of expression and opinion issued a joint statement on digital broadcasting rights in which they affirmed: “The process for allocating broadcasting licenses should be strictly regulated by law and be guided by clear, objective, transparent, and democratic criteria.

“IPI concluded that these criteria have not been observed in Guyana,” Hardt said, before adding that the body’s statement that “While IPI was previously aware of allegations that broadcast licences have been unfairly distributed in Guyana, our visit revealed the full depth and gravity of this issue. It is unthinkable that the licence applications of certain media have been delayed or ignored for nearly two decades. We call upon the newly constituted Broadcast Authority to immediately undertake a speedy and fair review of any outstanding license applications and to ensure that all applicants are subject to independent review,” bears repeating.

He said that other key issues highlighted by IPI are also essential to a free and independent media and a strong democracy, and they are interrelated: freedom of information and investigative journalism, direct intimidation of the press, and training and media standards.

 

Ask tough questions

 

The ambassador noted that according to the IPI, journalists in Guyana view the difficulty of obtaining information from the government as one of the primary obstacles to doing their job well. “Guyana did take a positive step toward greater transparency in 2011 with the passage of the Access to Information Act, but there have unfortunately been delays in implementation. While the appointment of an Information Commissioner is welcome, IPI pointed out that, to be effective, transparent, and independent, this position should be adequately staffed and separated from the Office of the President in keeping with international standards,” he said.

Hardt also recounted that the IPI also expressed concern about what it termed “direct intimidation of the independent press” and ‘high levels of hostility and mistrust” between the government and journalists. In this regard, it called on journalists to take a more critical approach to reporting rather than accepting the government’s account of events as given at a press conference.

“So tonight I would encourage all of you to not be afraid to ask the tough follow-up question. For example, when a government official suggests that a foreign assistance programme is providing assistance to political parties, ask those officials to back up their allegations. Don’t keep repeating the same unsupported allegations in follow-up reports, press for new information, investigate, and inform,” the ambassador emphasized in apparent reference to the USAID funded Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) project which government has objected to. In an escalation of the ongoing row, the administration last week revoked the work permit for the head of the LEAD project, Glenn Bradbury for activities that offended the Laws of Guyana.

Hardt said that good journalism follows the two “P’s” – preparation and persistence. “So be prepared. Always be reading, listening, watching. See what other media sources are saying, writing, and thinking. Be critical in your appraisal. Notice and analyze what makes a story or feature compelling to read. You need to keep knocking –politely — on dozens and dozens of doors until the right door opens,” he said.

The ambassador also spoke on training and media standards. “For the media to play its vital role in a democracy, it must be well-trained and hold itself to the highest professional standards. Press freedom is not just as an abstract policy, but a very practical skill that needs to be taught, nurtured and promoted,” he said while pointing out that the Embassy has been contributing to this in the past.

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