Veteran Guyanese/Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh in an open letter with a “specific appeal” to President Bharrat Jagdeo is urging him to urgently review the decision that led to the mass withdrawal of public sector advertisements from the Stabroek News and for a fair redistribution of the ads.
Singh in his letter, which was published in yesterday’s edition of the Guyana Chronicle and on its online edition yesterday and the day before, urged “the Head of State to exercise the good judgment and competence he has reflected in helping to ensure the positively changing social and economic landscape across Guyana, to now get off his government’s back the unnecessary burden of complaints and controversies surrounding the removal of advertisements” from the Stabroek News.
In view of personal assurances given earlier this year, Singh, who has also previously written on the issue as a regular regional contributor to media in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana, said he hopes that the President would now move to objectively review this position, notwithstanding recent verbal sparks, from both sides, resulting from Stabroek News’ peaceful picketing exercise during the meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting.
Singh, who was one of several prominent Caribbean media operatives who met with Jagdeo earlier this year in trying to resolve the issue of government’s withdrawal of state advertisements from this newspaper, said that “However much his advisers may have impressed upon him why such a course had to be pursued against the Stabroek News, perhaps driven by frustration over the paper’s perceived bias and claimed hostile editorials and news reporting, the official reason offered remains unacceptable to independent observers, here and abroad.”
Noting that no evidence has been offered by way of audited circulation of the Stabroek News and the Kaieteur News, he said that “the primary contention against the government’s cost-benefit case has been reinforced with the passage of time.”
“The fact that the Kaieteur News may have a circulation higher than that of the Stabroek News would, by itself, hardly be sufficient and objective reason for the mass withdrawal of advertisements by 29 government ministries and state corporations,” he said.
“Content and reputation also matter, the SN, in my view remains, warts and all, a paper of record – as is, most certainly, also the Chronicle – compared with the Kaieteur News. The President and his advisers, as well as cabinet ministers of the PPP/C administration cannot really be unaware of this reality.”
Singh stated that he was unaware of any demand being made on the government “to restore in full the status quo of public sector advertisements, as once flowed to the Stabroek News at a period when the Kaieteur News was deprived of what it is now enjoying.”
He said that fair redistribution of advertisements to the three recognised newspapers seems an appealing course to be pursued unless “stubbornness in maintaining a punitive weapon against the Stabroek News should triumph, much to the detriment of those concerned, for varying reasons, President Jagdeo may wish to rethink and allow the spirit of compromise and good reason to prevail.”
Singh said that he had agreed, when others disagreed, with the President that freedom of the press was not an issue in Guyana and that it would be irresponsible and malicious for such propaganda to be allowed to persist without challenge.
Singh suggested that “if the President should just step back a little from where he now stands, unbowed, on the ads controversy, it may provide him the opportunity to appreciate that the monthly loss of that significant volume of advertisements would ultimately have a negative impact on the economic viability of the Stabroek News.” Therefore, he contended, “that newspaper’s claim of facing a threat to its survival as an independent and important segment of the local media, should not be contemptuously dismissed, as the President’s advisers encourage him to think, while they engage in cross-fire propaganda with the Stabroek News.”
He queried whether the ‘advisers’ were “really unaware of the significance of public sector advertisements to media in Guyana as compared with the reality elsewhere in CARICOM, where mega-budgets advertising by the private sector sustain print and electronic media in those community states.”
And compared to what successive PPP/C administrations have had to cope with, and still face from hostile, opposition-linked electronic media and the Kaieteur News, Singh said “the dissenting journalism of the Stabroek News cannot objectively warrant the withdrawal of that volume of advertisements on merely the circulation claim, in the absence of audited circulation.”
Singh further asserted that the ball was in the President’s court and suggested that, “perhaps a meeting with the Stabroek News Editor-in-Chief and Publisher David de Caires for a sober dialogue may be appropriate.”
On the mounting of a peaceful placard-bearing protest outside the venue of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting, he noted that the President himself acknowledged it was a democratic right of the newspaper to protest “albeit after the disruption by the police had already taken place.”
He said, however, that it was most regrettable and quite obnoxious that the police, possibly out of an abundance of caution, disrupted the planned form of protest by restricting participants to some 300 yards away from outside the venue.
According to Singh, it was an act, ostensibly in the name of “security”, which brought back unpleasant memories of a political period when the PPP and its allies struggled so valiantly and consistently against the odds, for press freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association. He also recalled that often they suffered physically at the hands of party political thugs and even by law enforcement agents carrying out the orders of the political directorate.
“Happily, no such treatment was meted out to the Stabroek News protesters,” he added.
Singh also suggested that the indomitable spirit of “that master and great icon of non-violent and lawful protest, Dr Cheddi Jagan, the first democratically-elected Execu-tive President of Guyana, must remain the guide and source of inspiration for those within the PPP/C government and the ruling party who claim to cherish his awesome legacy.”
He said that former President Janet Jagan, the admirable fighter in political struggles was still around and could tell anyone willing to listen that contrary to claims in some orchestrated letters in the press, “it is absolute nonsense to talk about ’embarrassing’ a government by peaceful placard-protest.”
Appealing to President Jagdeo and the ruling PPP/C to give compromise a chance with an urgent and seriously positive consideration to end the current ads dispute with the Stabroek News, he said that “such an approach should be preferred to staying with one that smacks of misuse of public funds for punitive action against a newspaper, and which scenario is contributing to the unnecessary tarnishing of Guyana’s reputation by elements more keen on half-truths.”
Granted that the Jagdeo administration may have valid reasons to complain against the Stabroek News journalism, he said that in its challenge to the paper’s objectivity in reporting and commenting on the government’s policies and programmes, the government should be careful not to confuse dissenting journalism as being either anti-government or, worse anti-national. “We have had more than enough of such crap during a different political dispensation,” he said.
“The Stabroek News has, over the years, won a proud place among the region’s print media.”
Asking what was so wrong in authorising a fair redistribution of public sector advertisements without necessarily having to revert to the status quo of a year ago, he said, there was nothing to prevent the government, or the ru
ling party, from challenging whatever they consider necessary, as appeared in the Stabroek News.
“The newspaper would, of course, be expected to print such challenges and respond as it thinks appropriate. That would, essentially, be democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of expression at work,” he concluded.