Editor-in-Chief of Stabroek News David de Caires, respected as a tireless crusader for press freedom, has died.
de Caires passed away in his sleep early yesterday morning in Barbados where he had gone for medical evaluation. He suffered a heart attack in August and was hospitalized in Guyana for several days before being flown to Trinidad for further treatment. He returned to Guyana and proceeded to Barbados two weeks ago for a further medical assessment. He was due to return yesterday. He was 70.
The driving force behind the creation of Stabroek News in 1986, de Caires helped advance the struggle for press freedom and the holding of free and fair elections. Although he had no training in journalism, his passion and work ethic guided the newspaper through its infancy, emphasising the need for accuracy and fairness in reporting. 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. More recently, de Caires led from the front in a successful campaign against the government’s decision to pull state advertising from Stabroek News, which he saw as a threat to press freedom. He also had an enthusiasm for the arts and he was instrumental in the efforts to renovate the Theatre Guild playhouse.
At a news conference at State House yesterday, President Bharrat Jagdeo said de Caires’ contribution to national history will be long remembered, particularly the role he played in the opening of the free media at a critical time. He noted that Stabroek News came into being at a time of undemocratic rule. “He helped open the country to other views, some of which restored freedom to this country so I want to extend sincere condolences to [his wife] Doreen, the other members of the family, and also the management and staff of the newspaper on his passing.”
The governing PPP/C as well as the opposition AFC also offered their condolences to de Caires’ family as well as the newspaper staff yesterday. According to PPP/C General Secretary Donald Ramotar, de Caires made an impact at an important time in the country’s history. After political struggle managed to push open the gates of democracy a little, he said de Caires took a bold step with the decision to launch Stabroek News, one that helped consolidate democracy in the country. Ramotar added that he had a “warm” relationship with de Caires both professionally and personally. “He will be greatly missed,” he said, while offering condolences on behalf of the party and himself.
Meanwhile, AFC leader Raphael Trotman said to the AFC de Caires always stood out as a very principled and patriotic Guyanese, who believed in championing the cause of democracy as well as human rights. “We admired him for his principled stance, which was in place before 1992 and continued after. In our view, he was a true hero who deserves to be recognised as such.”
Georgetown Mayor Hamilton Green also paid tribute to de Caires, whom he regarded as the quintessence of journalism in this part of the world. He said: “I believe the country and the media fraternity have lost someone who I considered an icon.”
He found de Caires to possess integrity of the highest order and described him as a man of conviction and courage. He added that at a personal level they shared a very warm, gracious and respectful relationship. He said there was no issue that they could not discuss, no matter how sensitive.
Meanwhile, Stabroek News Editor Anand Persaud said he was deeply anguished by de Caires’ passing. Persaud disclosed that de Caires had spoken to him from Barbados on Thursday and was bubbling with ideas for the newspaper. He recalled de Caires was looking forward to a Directors’ meeting on Friday and was also excited about a feature he had seen in a Barbadian newspaper that he wanted to reproduce in the Stabroek News. Persaud called his attitude quintessential de Caires; refusing to give up and always energized by ways to improve the newspaper he birthed.
Persaud said that de Caires was always guided by the purest objectives of the profession of journalism which he loved passionately and would constantly admonish journalists about ensuring accuracy, balance and fairness in their reportage. “He was a journalist’s Editor-in-Chief in that he gave the optimum leeway to any story that was being done. There were no sacred cows; only facts and information that the public had a right and need to know,” he said.
He added de Caires worked tirelessly and was a caring and compassionate employer. His passing, he said, has left a void in the newspaper and the staff in deep grief.
Sunday Stabroek Editor Anna Benjamin added that she had been distressed to learn of the Editor-in-Chief’s passing. He was, she said, a very remarkable man who had helped change the political context by providing an avenue for the free expression of opinion and the discussion of ideas. She went on to say that he had stood above the fray in a sense, seeking the kind of changes to the institutional framework which would create the conditions for the country’s meaningful long-term development, both political and economic. Above all else he was a visionary, who was nonetheless not impractical, and worked hard to make his vision a reality, and ensure that some kind of lasting contribution was made to the society in which he had been born. Such persons cannot be replaced, she added.
At the personal level Benjamin recalled de Caires’ tolerance, intellectual range, and the delight he took in a good discussion on any number of topics. In particular, she stressed his unfailing humanity.
Assistant Editor Cheryl Springer recalled de Caires’ indefatigable optimism in Guyana’s capacity to rise to its full potential some day. He was above all else, a patriot, she said.
On a personal level, Springer said de Caires had been her mentor throughout her career at Stabroek News. His office door was always open regardless of how busy he was “and he dispensed all kinds of advice to whoever needed it.”
He was a fair critic, she said, and quick to give praise when it was due. She remembered him calling to compliment individual reporters on stories, which served to boost morale and encourage competitiveness.
Trained as a solicitor, de Caires entered the newspaper business relatively late in life, when together with Ken Gordon of Trinidad he approached the late President Desmond Hoyte requesting to start a newspaper. It was 1986 and de Caires was 49, with a successful law practice that did not stimulate him. Up until then his interest in publishing and journalism had found an outlet in the 1960s in the first edition of the groundbreaking New World Quarterly, which he co-edited. He later edited the New World Fortnightly, which ran from 1964 to 1967, and his friends admit that he did most of the work. Later, along with law partner Miles Fitzpatrick he read the Catholic Standard for libel before it went to press.
de Caires’ closest friends remember him as an intelligent and principled man, with a work ethic that was inspirational. Fitzpatrick SC, who shared a legal practice with de Caires for almost thirty years, said, “He made a lawyer out of me.” The two had been friends since the 1950s, when they both began their legal careers after returning from study in the UK. They were both young and shared mutual interests. But according to Fitzpatrick, it was de Caires’ meticulous work on cases for him that encouraged him to have more respect for his duties as a lawyer. “I was a man about town and a bit shallow at the time,” he recalled. “But when he prepared a case I felt a bit ashamed and it made me watch my Ps and Qs around him,” he added.
For his part, Fitzpatrick later encouraged de Caires’ decision to finally go ahead with the newspaper, since he believed his friend was “absolutely bored with the law,” possibly due to the fact that he was not doing the dramatic court work. As a result de Caires went ahead with Stabroek News and Fitzpatrick observed that his friend took on his new role as publisher with the exact same perfectionist attitude and nervous energy he had applied to his legal practice. “David was itching to get something up and running,” he said. “He would have been a lost soul without something like this.” Fitzpatrick added that the newspaper has been the most important private sector institution post-independence and de Caires the most important private sector cultural activist.
Another close friend, poet and novelist Ian McDonald described de Caires as being among the handful of outstanding people anyone would be lucky to meet in their lifetime. He said he was one of the people who you know for sure not only possess a character and moral strength which is completely exceptional but who combine this with a quite remarkable drive to do something good for others, for community, for country. “My heart is too full to say much on the spur of this
terrible moment but I want to express my life-long admiration for a man of great stature whose dedicated work in the cause of creating a free society was, I believe, extremely valuable and historically important. My love also I express for a friend who was unwaveringly loyal and thoughtful in all times good and bad in my life,” he said.
“David was an outstanding newspaperman, a clear and beautiful writer of prose, and he was the Caribbean’s greatest and most eloquent advocate for free speech and a free press as an essential part of the foundation of a free and decent society and a well-run state.
“I am very sad David missed November 4th. He had been following the American election campaign with close attention and was looking forward keenly to Barack Obama becoming President. David believed Obama would be a great President and that he would bring renewed hope for a better world. In his own way, in his own world, David stood for just that — despite all set-backs, always hope and strive for a better world.”
Joey King was a barrister at Cameron and Shepherd in the 1950s, where de Caires started his legal career as an articled clerk in then British Guiana. King said de Caires was a very intelligent man and a quick study, and he recalled selling him a motor bike and finding that his friend had mastered the art of riding it.
He opined that de Caires was the best solicitor the country had seen since Edward De Freitas. But he also recognised that despite his aptitude in the law, de Caires’ real passion was for the newspaper business. He added that he had advised de Caires to lay off of work at the newspaper in light of the toll it had taken on his health. But he had such an enormous sense of responsibility, King noted, he could not let up at all. He said the newspaper remains a monument to de Caires’ contributions to the country.
de Caires often said his participation in the rebirth of a free press was as challenging as it was exciting. In a speech on excellence in journalism given to a Guyana Press Association lecture a few years ago, he said: “In retrospect, the last twenty years of my life have been the most testing but also the most fulfilling from a career standpoint, and I have never worked so hard. A newspaper is an extraordinary thing. It’s a business, of course, and you have to be able to pay the bills to survive – which is not easy in Guyana given the state of the economy and the paucity of ads. But as Arthur Miller once noted, a good newspaper is like a nation having a conversation with itself, by which I believe he meant that your readers should feel at least slightly involved in the adventure.”
He added that a newspaper can be a voice for sanity, moderation and tolerance, though he appreciated that it could also with equal facility be chauvinist, sensationalist and even at times warmongering. Nevertheless, he emphasised that a newspaper can be as good as anyone can make it, relying on energy, hard work, talent and dedication. “There are times when the future looks grim, when political instability and crime seem overwhelming, and all seems to be lost. So newspapers must be patient, they must take a long view that makes the crises and the setbacks understandable as part of the painful process of building a democratic nation cast adrift from the old relations with Europe and facing multiple challenges, including our own fragile regional experiment.”
de Caires also advocated the need for newspapers to fearlessly confront all issues, despite the inevitable fallout from one group or another. “One has to be prepared to express one’s views without fear or favour, whoever is involved. When politicians or other public figures act like fools or bullies, one must say so, and when obvious injustice is done one must not be quiet. At times of crisis newspapers have to stand firm and do their job. Journalism can be one of the most fulfilling jobs, worthy of the best and brightest in our societies. And precisely because of its challenges, no journalist escapes the daily test of what is excellent.”
de Caires leaves to mourn his wife Doreen, who was his partner in building Stabroek News, and his children Isabelle and Brendon.