The withdrawal of ads has sent a negative message for press freedom

Dear Editor,

The Government, the PPP, and because of comments he has made, President Jagdeo himself, seem to be drawing unnecessary and self-inflicted criticism upon themselves in the matter of the withdrawal of ads from Stabroek News.

Mr Jagdeo, who apparently does not “bear malice” for long , should defuse the situation by intervening to reverse the decision. The sophistry coming from some writers in the letter pages of the newspapers, and from Peeping Tom over at the Kaieteur News, in support of the government , will convince no one. None of the “objective reasons” given -circulation considerations or better use of the state’s advertising budget- convince. The truth of the matter is that the President has said publicly he feels the Stabroek News is unfair to him.

Mr Jagdeo feels that in this whole episode, he is the one who has been unfairly treated, who has had great reason to complain. This is an interesting angle. The bad press is only one of his many woes. It is a fact that Mr Jagdeo has had one of the most harrowing presidencies a leader could imagine. Given the fact that he has inherited the hard task of running a country with a halting economy, and besides that, the stress of dealing with one crisis after another – semi-civil war in Buxton, crime in which his party’s supporters were targeted, the pantom squad scandal in which one of his ministers was accused, the great flood…etc.- one has to imagine that Mr Jagdeo has had the most challenging presidency of a first term incumbent in our history.

Besides, there were real scandals in which his people were at fault. Embarrassing. Given all that, when the man tries to do a “monumental” project -the stadium, the bridge… – as Ramotar would say, the naysayers start a chorus of criticism that would break the will of even the most sturdy of PPP hearts. Mr Jagdeo is hurt. A reconciliation should be arranged in which he and the press association or he and Stabroek News frankly discuss the issue.

Mr Jagdeo is also on public record as being against the unwholesome carping of all naysayers. Doubtless, as in the case of those presidents before him, there would be moments when he would find the critics exasperating. So does he hit back by trying to silence them? .

The first inkling that the party, on the question of press criticism, was letting its collective emotions get the better of it was when one read that Tony Vieira had the lottery ads pulled from his station. Watching Tony’s beard burst into flames, all men should have started dousing their own. For, having gotten away with that, the PPP then makes bold to pull the financial rug from under the Stabroek News. The PPP is hardly well placed to expand on the question of objective criticism. The Mirror was vituperatively critical of the PNC, and often unfairly so.

But Mr Jagdeo himself cannot be said to be viscerally anti-criticism. He has been known to publicly lose his temper and publicly rail at his own administration’s inefficiencies when he receives complaints during his walk-abouts. The “People”, African, Indian, Amerindian or whomsoever, can criticise. He listens and tries to fix. So involved is he in this fiddling and fixing that he has been accused of “micro-management.” And perhaps things change. But one of the problems is that heads don’t roll. So the type of criticism he does not like, the type of naysaying he detests, comes from certain sections of the press and, of course, hardened adversaries in the unrelenting opposition. Mr. Jagdeo has to know that being criticised is one of the functions of being president. You take the praise. It is your image and likeness on the billboard. You also take the flack. The popular perception is that the President with or without the PPP will not change that habit of protection that shields the miscreants in the party and government. One has to admit that a certain “culture” remains with the party – but also to admit that the habit of rancorous revenge that seems to have hardened at the core of its dealing with the oppposition may change, and that when it changes, it will do so to the lasting credit of Mr Jagdeo, now more inclined to a detente with the PNC. The problem is that the PPP also has no great understanding of what press freedom is about. Or is pretending not to. In the case of the Stabroek News it occurs to the most inexperienced of observers that the issue is not one of whether freedom to print by and of itself is constitutive of press freedom. But that the formulation should really be “freedom to print without fear of retaliation”. Clearly the Stabroek News has been made to feel the retributive wrath of the President. Contrary to what PPP press czars wish us to believe they think, freedom of the press is not evidenced only by the multiplicity of media in the land, but the quality and range of this freedom has got to be measured also by the state of the press under government control. In short, does the government controlled media serve as examples of free and objective media? Whether the Stabroek News is pro-government or not is, in my judgement, not an issue at all. Nowhere is it written that government should use state resources to reward or punish. That supporters get contracts and favours. That opponents, or those that dare write and talk about this, will be punished.. And it is exactly this message that the withdrawal of ads is sending out. Praise us, keep quiet, or criticise and pay. Mr. Jagdeo has been angry but should now permit himself to do a bit of positive PR for the party and government. Lift the ban. It is statesmanlike and sets a positive example. Let the PPP’s list of qualities always include its respect for press freedom. The party has nothing to lose. Whatever SN writes or the Human Rights organisations say they will continue to enjoy the yoke of their ethnic following. Let them not forget the lesson we learnt in 1992. No matter what the PNC had done (and President Hoyte has also to be given credit for changing much) the party emerged from those elections with its support base intact. All of the harrassment of the media and the silencings it had done in its 28 years, were just, in the end, futile, in the end only bad PR. Doing as much harm to the party’s image as the criticisms they had tried to stop. I am certain that, as this matter grows in dimension (because it features prominently in the comments sections of all the newspapers) Mr Jagdeo would find a solution. My hope is that a new era in government /press relations would come out of this and that the parties meet and talk. Falsely pretending that it’s a question of circulation figures or rational use of state resources mocks at the fact that state resources are for all who inhabit the state, whatever their race or politics. Yours faithfully,

Abu Bakr

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