David de Caires: Man, mission and the media

David de Caires was one of the most outstanding Guyanese newspaper editors of the 20th century. His commitment to freedom of expression was unwavering and unequalled. His addresses, articles, analyses and interviews constitute the single largest collection of coherent and critical commentary on the local press. He enjoyed a reputation for journalistic integrity beyond this country’s borders. 

David de Caires and Ricardo Trotti watch as President Bharrat Jagdeo signs the Declaration of Chapultepec in May 2002.
David de Caires and Ricardo Trotti watch as President Bharrat Jagdeo signs the Declaration of Chapultepec in May 2002.

When he died on November 1, the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper wrote that “he understood that the foundation of journalism was the right of the individual to freedom of expression and to hold and exchange ideas and these freedoms, in turn, were the foundations of democracy. He understood, too, that the paraphernalia of journalism and a free press were merely superstructures, built upon these freedoms. David de Caires was not without agenda or ideology, but he brought to his journalism an utmost integrity and commitment to the truth and facts. And he was incorruptible.”

The Trinidad and Tobago Express newspaper wrote “David de Caires was a staunch believer in the right of the Guyanese people to free expression and in the power of that freedom to help transform their lives and, thereby, their society.”  The Times of the United Kingdom wrote “He turned Stabroek News into an institution respected throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. It was a model of free and fearless reporting. He refused to be intimidated by governments, individuals or advertisers. “We cannot afford to be in anyone’s pocket or even in their corner,” he once said. “The free press must see itself as an important arbiter, committed to ideals and values that transcend interest groups of one kind or another.”

David de Caires receives the Commonwealth Press Union's Astor Award for his contribution to press freedom from Lady Astor in July 1992.
David de Caires receives the Commonwealth Press Union

David de Caires’s establishment and management of the Stabroek News and, later, the continuation of the publication of the Guyana Review, are more than mere monuments of the newspaper industry. They are manifestations of one man’s personal philosophy of social justice, of his lifelong mission to preserve the principle of freedom of expression, and of his employment of the media, particularly the Stabroek News newspaper, to assert the importance of the independence of the individual.

The man
David Francis de Caires was born on December 31, 1937 in Georgetown into a secure commercial class, the scion of a comfortable, Catholic family.  His father Francis Ignatius de Caires – a director of  De Caires Bros Ltd.,  member of the Georgetown Cricket Club who had played cricket for the West Indies and secretary of the exclusive Portuguese Club – was the son of Salvador de Caires, a commission merchant and governing director of de Caires Bros Ltd. His mother Marie Celestine, née Jardim, also from a prominent city family, was a staunch Catholic.

Baptised a Roman Catholic, David attended primary school at the Ursuline Convent and spent a year at St. Stanislaus College. Then, like his father Francis, and uncle Herman, he was sent at the age of 12 years to continue his secondary education at a Roman Catholic Jesuit boarding school – Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England.

At Stonyhurst, David de Caires became profoundly influenced by the Jesuit educational ethos and accepted its core values as his personal code of conduct. Inspired by the ideas of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuit education inculcated the tenets of caring for the individual; showing love in deeds; engaging with the wider world, and encouraging excellence, among others. De Caires’s concern for humanity, his spontaneous and genuine generosity of spirit, his social activism, intolerance of tawdriness and admiration of excellence all sprung from the classrooms and corridors of Stonyhurst.

He had an abiding admiration for his own educational experience and was quoted in the Catholic Standard newspaper decades afterwards as saying “I believe the best Catholic education has always been distinguished by the fact that it takes ideas seriously. Indeed, both James Joyce and Fidel Castro were products of a Jesuit education, though not noted in later life for their devotion to the church…” Of course, he sent his only son, Brendan, to study at Stonyhurst as well.

Leaving Stonyhurst, de Caires attended Gibson and Weldon Law School in London where he qualified as a solicitor and was admitted to practise in Guyana.  Articled to Edward de Freitas, a solicitor with Guyana’s oldest law firm – Cameron and Shepherd, on High Street – he did not spend long. He entered into a formal partnership agreement with Miles Fitzpatrick in 1967 to form the firm of de Caires & Fitzpatrick (later, de Caires, Fitzpatrick & Karran) and bought a building for their offices at 215 King Street, Lacytown, right in the shadow of the Supreme Court. 

The fusion of professional law practice, religious precepts, educational ethos, and political ideas created his particularly humane world view. Although later in life he drifted away from the ritual and sacramental side of church life, his day-to-day activities continued to reflect the Ignatian values that he learnt in his adolescence. He did become, and remained, thoroughly libertarian and anti-authoritarian. He was famously unfazed by officialdom and unimpressed with pompous persons, no matter how powerful, and always coolly indifferent to hierarchies – whether corporate, state or church.

His concern for the human condition was always central to his world view. Starting his political life as a founding member of the United Force party, he remained an adherent of free enterprise and an admirer of Peter D’Aguiar – another graduate of Stonyhurst College, successful capitalist and a fervid anti-communist – who founded the party in November 1960. But this was an unsettled period of this country’s pre-independence history and, as the political and security situation worsened, young people sought remedies for the country’s problems. The founding of the New World Group in 1960-61 was to become another important influence in moulding de Caires’s outlook.
An urbane and cultured man, David de Caires loved art, drama, literature, music and sport and served briefly as a member of the National History and Arts Council in the mid-1960s. More typically, however, he was impatient with the gradualism and formalism of statutory committees and sterile institutions. He worked well in small, purposeful, ad hoc teams and was ill at ease in grand bureaucracies. On occasions, his idiosyncratic inclination to act intuitively led him to challenge what he considered to be the contagion of cultural philistinism.
His leadership of the ‘Camp Street 2000’ millennium project was an example of such a spontaneous response to the deteriorating urban landscape. On his own initiative, he called up a coterie of like-minded friends and set about to transform the ugly avenue. By the end of the century, it had degenerated into a watery track that flooded on schedule with every shower, and had become a hazard that obliged pedestrians to walk on the motorway. He raised about $11 million from personal friends and the corporate community and, with their help, completely changed the ambience. The project not only physically redesigned the avenue and installed electric lamps and benches but functionally made it into a pleasant venue in a refreshing, open-air, evening setting for public lectures, Hindu festivals and leisure.

As team leader of the local organising committee, he worked tirelessly to bring about the Caribbean Media Conference in Georgetown, also in 2000. And, on the approach of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts – Carifesta – only this year, his chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of the Theatre Guild Restoration Project was central to the transmogrification of the dilapidated playhouse.

But he could be quixotic. On a visit to London, he determined to rescue several endangered paintings of the acclaimed artist Aubrey Williams which were lying in his widow’s damp basement. David de Caires brought another eminent artist, Stanley Greaves, to deliver a lecture on Aubrey Williams’s art to which, with misplaced optimism, he invited the cream of society and the corporate elite. His expectations that they could be persuaded to purchase some of the priceless paintings and, thereby, contribute to their conservation and ‘repatriation’ sadly, were dashed.

 He even published a few books – Hawley Harris’s 100 Cartoons; Anna Benjamin’s Freedom of Expression and the Birth of Stabroek News and Lloyd Searwar’s Guyana and the World – under the trademark of Guyana Publications Incorporated, the company formed to publish the Stabroek News.  A lover of music – especially American jazz – he also played squash, tennis and golf and was a member of the Lusignan Golf Club, serving as vice-captain and captain and helping, as usual, with fundraising efforts to keep the club afloat. He had other sporting interests, especially horse-racing.

He read widely, particularly the works of libertarians such as C.L.R. James, J.S. Mill and I.F. Stone. His unostentatious generosity was evinced in his quiet support for several charities including the Beacon Foundation; Mercy Wings Vocational and Day Care Centre; St John Bosco Orphanage; and the Guyana Veterans Foundation. Equally unobtrusively, he provided legal advice to some of them and other non-governmental organisations.

The Mission

Not out of personal ambition, but in his quest for social justice and with a strong sense of mission, David de Caires did play an important role in national politics. A political and economic conservative, he was an advocate of laissez-faire economics and liberal politics.  After his brief involvement with the United Force, he eschewed party involvement but embraced the immutable principles of individual liberty and dignity. He had a vision of a happier country and thought that he could contribute to making it so by ensuring that traditional rights and freedoms were protected. In this, he had no qualms about collaborating with persons of different interest groups who shared that vision.

The flawed elections of 1968 and 1973, the rotten referendum of 1978 and, by the late 1970s, the foundering state-controlled economy all amplified anxieties about the national situation. An ad hoc Committee of Concerned Citizens – comprising architects; attorneys; churchmen; doctors; educators; engineers and trade unionists – formed to campaign against the referendum on the Constitution Amendment Bill, effectively made the De Caires & Fitzpatrick law offices in King Street its headquarters, hosting meetings of anti-referendum elements. Together with representatives of the opposition parties – grouped under the ad hoc Committee in Defence of Democracy – a united call was made to boycott the referendum on 10th July 1978. It was the most complete electoral boycott in this country’s political history.

As political and economic conditions continued to deteriorate the next year, David de Caires became affiliated to another civic group – Compass – which aimed at seeking solutions to the crisis. But this group included several senior executives of state corporations which by that time had been brought under the state-controlled Guyana State Corporation. Meeting in March 1979 at the Catholic Centre in Brickdam, Compass got as far as publishing a ‘Statement of Purpose” before the People’s National Congress administration took action against the state executives.

These political events, followed by the murder of a British Jesuit priest, Fr Bernard Darke who taught at St Stanislaus College but took photographs for the Catholic Standard newspaper, set David de Caires resolutely on the road of resistance. Still an attorney, he courageously defended, along with Miles Fitzpatrick, the controversial Catholic Standard newspaper which, under the editorship of the Jesuit priest Fr Andrew Morrison, had been sued for libel repeatedly by government officials. David de Caires and Miles Fitzpatrick undertook, gratis, both legal representation in court and examination of articles before publication to avoid further legal trouble.

David de Caires believed that the free expression of opinions, exchange of views and dissemination of ideas through printing would contribute to the search for solutions to this country’s problems. He was still in his mid-20s when the original New World group had been formed by some concerned young men who held living-room meetings to discuss political and economic topics, to present papers and to publish periodicals.  The New World series of journals was the product of those initiatives.

The first, rather ponderous, issue of New World Quarterly appeared in March 1963 but, thereafter, David de Caires thought it prudent to produce more handy fortnightly magazines.  The New World Fortnightly followed the next year, 1964, and continued for fifty issues until January 1967. And, finally, the New World Guyana Independence Issue in 1966 bankrupted the group and brought the entire New World series to an end. Nevertheless, his fascination with publishing, and his faith in the power of the printed word persisted.

The Media

David de Caires took advantage of the dismantling of the socialist economy and the liberalisation of society when President Desmond Hoyte removed his predecessor’s oppressive restrictions on the press. He decided to start a newspaper with the assistance and advice of Mr Ken Gordon, the Managing Director of Trinidad Express Newspapers.  With the support of his wife Doreen and a purposeful group of like-minded friends – Miles Fitzpatrick, John Simon de Freitas, Martin Carter and Victor Insanally – and, with some financial help from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, David de Caires launched Guyana Publications Limited (later, Incorporated), the company which would produce the Stabroek News – Guyana’s first, post-independence, privately-owned newspaper.

Although he had no formal training in journalism, his enthusiasm and work ethic buoyed the newspaper through its infancy. Emphasising the need for accuracy and fairness in reporting and inspired by the professional principles of presenting the news accurately and ensuring balance in reporting, he paid personal attention to the editorial content. He was particularly proud of the popularity of the letter pages which he felt embodied the ideal of freedom of expression by giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to freely express their views. “The single thing I’m proudest of is our letters column, sometimes as much as two pages. We get an enormous sackful of letters every week. We have cultivated this by publishing as many as possible. It is the chance for people to be heard. For such a small paper, we get an enormous volume of letters,” De Caires once told an interviewer.
In de Caires’s eyes, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, the agenda for national recovery and reconstruction had to include the restoration of an open society based on the rule of law, a free market economy and the holding of free and fair elections. By consistently publishing critical reports on the functioning of the Guyana Elections Commission, the Stabroek News was able to convince the Carter Center, then a significant arbiter of this country’s electoral reform, to conclude that the continuation of the old commission would be unacceptable. A newly-structured commission based on “the Carter formula” for the selection of members was established.  Arguably, Stabroek News’s relentless reporting had helped to furnish the evidential foundation for reform and vindicated David de Caires’s policy that the Stabroek News should be ‘a paper of record’ that was based on factual accuracy and fair reporting. 
As chairman of the company and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, he joined the fraternity of free editors in the Commonwealth Caribbean and became the most articulate spokesman and an ardent advocate of press freedom in Guyana.  He relished the adversarial role of the press.  In his address on the subject of “Media Ownership and the Ideology of a Free Press,” he iterated Albert Camus’s maxim “A free press may be good or bad, but a press without freedom can only be bad.” He asserted that “…there can never be a cosy relationship between government and the press if the press is doing its job; indeed, the relationship is inherently adversarial in the nature of the case though it need not be hostile or vicious and can even be quite friendly on occasion.” He was also a firm believer in the need for newspapers to be fearless in tackling difficult issues. The worst sin for any newspaper, he said, is to play safe, to duck the tough issues.”

In another of his addresses on the subject of “Libel Actions as a Political Weapon,” he said that “Our experience in Guyana has taught us that the main threat to newspapers will always come from the state through the politicians in power.” He would learn the truth of this dictum the hard way. Indeed, the greatest challenge David de Caires faced in his entire career as editor-in-chief, and the greatest threat to the survival of the Stabroek News newspaper was the punitive withdrawal of state advertising.

As early as 1994, President Cheddi Jagan began accusing the Stabroek News of trying to “destabilise” the People’s Progressive Party administration. Soon, the squeeze started. The Minister of Finance withdrew Bank of Guyana advertising from the paper then all government advertising was centralised, ominously, under the Government Information Service. Official accusations against the Stabroek News of “professional irresponsibility…in publishing inaccurate and fabricated news” about President Cheddi Jagan’s visit to Venezuela in October 1995 followed. These charges were clearly designed to undermine the newspaper’s regional reputation, to damage its local credibility and to justify the decision to withdraw state advertising. It has been fourteen years, not fourteen months, that David de Caires has been obliged to campaign against the government’s advertising policy towards the Stabroek News which he saw as a threat to press freedom. 

Most hurtful, however, were the insinuations of Mrs Janet Jagan, at that time editor of the Mirror newspaper, that David de Caires was part of an anti-government cabal.  Mrs Jagan’s article, first published by the Weekend Mirror newspaper under the title “An Essay on Hate” was reprinted by the Sunday Chronicle newspaper of 19 November 1995 with the title “The Silent Majority Will Have to Rise Now.” It accused an anti-government cabal of having brought the country to ruin in the past and suggested baldly “All of what we see going on now – lie after lie in the Stabroek News, the unrelenting scream of hatred coming over television, the blare of trumpets of unreason and ignorance – herald what these forces hope is a restoration of the disorder and violence of the past.”

Relations between the state and the press would get worse, not better. David de Caires’s final fight for fair advertising started simply enough with his decision to publish a newsworthy story concerning a controversy which erupted in the Central Committee of the People’s Progressive Party. Two members – Moses Nagamootoo and Khemraj Ramjattan – made certain claims about an incident which occurred on 31st January 2004. Stabroek News carried the story in its 7th February 2004 issue but the claims were denied and an attorney-at-law acting for President Bharrat Jagdeo dispatched a letter to the Stabroek News seeking an unqualified apology or retraction and threatening legal action. David de Caires informed the attorney-at-Law that he would not apologise and was prepared to defend the matter in court. Expectedly, the litigants did not pursue there at that time.

Mr Ramjattan was subsequently expelled from the party but retained his seat in the National Assembly. In the spirit of encouraging freedom of expression, David de Caires allowed him and Mr Raphael Trotman, who had also left the People’s National Congress, to write a regular series of articles in the Stabroek News – a noble but fateful decision. Althought the articles were discontinued when Mr Ramjattan and Mr Trotman launched a new political party – the Alliance for Change – to contest the general elections, the newspaper was regarded as having served as a platform to challenge the ruling party.

This was the situation when the 2006 general elections ended. Not three months afterwards, the axe fell. David de Caires was quite astonished at the abrupt discontinuation of government advertisements to the Stabroek News. He saw the action as an invasion of press independence and an attack on freedom of expression itself. He saw the irony of having become a victim of an administration which was the product of the electoral process he toiled to install. He saw that the measures threatened to demolish much for which he had fought for forty years. But the war of attrition had exhausted him much more than he thought.  Advertisements were eventually restored on the eve of the establishment of another newspaper which would compete for a share of state advertising.

The Message
The story of the Stabroek News was one of struggle to survive in a hostile environment dominated by an intrusive state apparatus. It was also one of maintaining ethical standards in an anomic media environment. As its legendary editor-in-chief, David de Caires was thrust into the limelight he never craved. Called upon to deliver numerous addresses, write articles, grant interviews and participate in discussions on press freedom, however, he did not hesitate to proclaim and promote the principles to which he had adhered faithfully since his adolescence.

The breadth of his intellectual interest was reflected in the huge repertoire of public addresses: “Media Ownership and the Ideology of a Free Press,” at a Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago symposium on 12th April 1996;  “A Demanding Profession,” at the Guyana Bar Association on 4th December 1999;  “Journalism in Guyana,” at the Georgetown diplomatic community on 21st February 2001; “Accessibility, Legislation and Media Responsibility,” at the Caribbean Media Conference in Antigua; “Free Speech and the Global Village” as part of the University of Guyana’s 40th Anniversary Distinguished Lecture Series in 2003; “The Guyana Elections and the Aftermath: Challenges for the Media”  and, “Should the Media be Impartial and Responsible?” at the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association on 26th November 2004.

His published papers include “Independence and Pluralism: Identifying Obstacles” in UNESCO’s Media and Democracy in Latin America; and, with Miles Fitzpatrick, “Twenty Years of Politics in our Land,” in the New World Guyana Independence Issue. There were many more.

He was affiliated to the Commonwealth Press Union, the Inter-American Press Association and the International Press Institute – international organisations devoted to protecting press freedom and encouraging professional standards of journalism. He was winner of the Guyana Press Association’s award for the best editorial of the year in 1992 and the Commonwealth Press Union’s Astor award for his contribution to press freedom. He was also instrumental in President Bharrat Jagdeo’s signing the Declaration of Chapultepec on 24 May 2002. He supported the work of the Guyana Human Rights Association and the Guyana Institute for Social Research and Action but never sought executive office.

Witty and charming with the talent of getting on with people from all backgrounds, David de Caires was also modest and self-effacing but, nonetheless, possessed a steely determination. He avoided self-promotion and detested any sort of pomposity.  He wanted, above all, to make Guyana a better place.

There is no more apt epitaph to him than the iteration of tribute of the Trinidad and Tobago Express newspaper: “David de Caires was a staunch believer in the right of the Guyanese people to free expression and in the power of that freedom to help transform their lives and thereby their society.”

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