I lived through the entire Burnhamite era (1965-85) and, without a doubt, it was largely authoritarian. It was characterized for the most part, as I had written then, by political despotism. Fraud, Fear and Food (the triple F policy) were weapons of political rule.
Elections were routinely rigged; attacks on civil liberties including press freedom and freedom to dissent, complemented by use of goon squads/thugs against opponents, the prevalence of choke-and-rob/kick-down-the-door banditry had cast a pall of fear and uncertainty over the land; and the banning of essential foods, (we had sarcastically dubbed that LFSB – lines for soup and bread), even rationing of newsprint for my newspaper, were sordid features of that time.
But that time is different from now. Today we enjoy electoral democracy; free, not necessarily fair, but plural media; qualitatively better infrastructural facilities and social benefits (primarily in education, health, housing/water, sports and care for children/women/elderly). In short, life is better now than then.
However, the kind and intensity of fear we experience today did not exist then. The narco-criminal enterprise, phantom gangs and deportees were not yet born. Never did we witness the brutality and barbarism that seized our collective lives and psyche such as the slaughter of Minister Sawh and his family; the shooting of five pressmen; the discovery of headless and gutless bodies; the car-jacking/kidnap-murder of taxi drivers; the mindless slaying of innocent occupants and the torching of homes; the bestiality and terror of Lusignan and Bartica, etc. The daily headlines and sensationalism of crime have a chilling effect on our lives.
It makes matters worse when members of our security forces became, and still are, both criminals and victims. Several of them have been identified amongst extortionists, drug traffickers/enforcers, bandits, pirates, ruthless and cold-blooded killers and rapists. I have received so many reports of villagers who go to report crimes at police stations, only to see the criminals in uniform. Berbicians were and continue to be afraid of reporting incidents of rape on their women and girls out of fear of reprisal. The dispatch of the so-called Black Clothes ranks there has eased the disquiet. On one occasion, when they protested vigorously as they ought to, villagers were tear-gassed and a protester was killed by police bullets.
The fear I see today, even amongst media practitioners, cannot be compared to that I have seen or experienced in the Burnham era. This is a truism. I was therefore taken back when I read Friday Musings in which Sharief Khan blindfolded himself and said, “I am sorry friend Moses – but I just don’t see the media (sic) fear you see.”
Without checking, Sharief fell victim to the newspaper headline, which was, to say the least, misleading. He repeated and relied on the rubric: “…that there is greater fear in Guyana today than during the Burnham reign.”
What I actually said, dear pal, was: “I have seen fear in this land that I have not seen even in the worst days of what I call the Burnhamite rule.”
I admit that what I said lent itself to misinterpretation and, perhaps, just perhaps, was over-stated. But I did not say that the fear is greater. It is different. It has a new and specific context.
And I cannot recall pronouncing clinically about “large doses of fear” by the media in reporting stories that could be deemed offensive to the administration.
What I said is this: “People are exercising much more self-censorship today than in the past, and we can’t in seven minutes analyse the reasons for this. What I want to say is that we can help to shed the fear if we become bolder, if we speak up. It is our inalienable right to say how we feel and why we see things the way we see them…” Even if this means that we must “censure those who govern us.”
I recalled that I was a victim of authoritarian rule. Then access to the media was denied. My newspaper was closed down.
I had prefaced that by saying that “Guyana is not a landscape where journalists are routinely jailed.” I referred to mild sanctions against journalists from time to time by government officials but these, I said, were not a policy but behaviour that shows intolerance for criticism.
About Freedom of Information, I said legislation is over-due and we should accept the assurances of both the President and Prime Minister that the law will be drafted later this year or some time next year. In a previous address, I had said that broadcasting legislation was also due, and I looked forward to the opening of the airwaves to allow independent radio stations.
I stated: “Press freedom is the greatest power in the hands of the people against the state, and it must be exercised judiciously and with restraint and responsibility. The role of the press is to help the process of good governance, and promote a new wave of democracy that will see our system being more humane, our democracy more people-oriented, and that our people see themselves for who they are, not as government and opposition. In celebrating press freedom, I wish to say that the press in Guyana is alive. We need to go forward and make our country safer, more secure and a better place for all Guyanese, which require journalists to be courageous to shake off our shackles of fear.”
I cautioned journalists that when FOI is enacted, it will require greater responsibility from them to use the accessed info to help educate the public to make informed choices. For too long journalists complain of not being able to access official information. Though we have little “state secrets” and there is access to personal information, ie, birth, marriage and death certificates and court documents, I still sensed unease among journalists that I have not seen and experienced in the past.
The unease is not due to any despotic rule, but results from the political climate. I refer to ethno-political and demographic cleavages, the competition for political space and power, which foster a body of intolerance. “Those inside, wish to feel that they are always right; and those outside, wish to damnify those in power.”
Since the 2002 jailbreak, the Buxton insurgency and resultant blood-spilling, the disappearance from the army of a cache of deadly AK-47s, the role of journalists has undergone dramatic change. Many hold back what they know, or what they could under normal circumstances report from fear of recrimination and harm. They tell, to use a now discredited refrain, “half a tale”; or they just “talk half, and lef half”.
I repeat the context of this fear: Guyana has seen an armed insurgency which, though limited, was dangerous. The root was probably exterminated, but it showed how crime was used as a weapon of political struggle. Drugs lords exploited the distrust that existed between the state and its armed apparatus, and occupied the space between the government and the political opposition.
If I had used the phrase “heavy doses of fear” it would have been justified when members of the security forces became contaminated, and joined the criminal frenzy. I am reminded of an old adage that goes like this: ‘When the fence we erect around our garden begins to eat the crop, we have no protection.’
The syndrome of fear is not created by the government. In many ways, the state is a victim of this fear. Police stations, even the force’s headquarters, have been cordoned off and barricaded. Even the Office of the President, considered sacrosanct or out-of-bounds, was attacked and invaded.
The fear has a paralysing effect on homeowners and businesses as well. The attack on Nathoo’s Bar was always a reminder that killers were on the prowl. Many a night, the city became deserted like a ghost town.
But the government cannot be totally absolved from blame. Episodes of intolerance and knee-jerk reaction resulted in unease among media workers when, for example state advertisements were withheld from Stabroek News, and CNS 6 TV was shut down for a second time (the first during the 2005 flood was wholly justifiable). I talked to many reporters and cameramen whose livelihood was threatened. They would never be the same again, and as the saying goes – once bitten twice shy. The mask of this self-censorship is fear.
As a journalist in the Burnham era, maybe I did not admit to fear. I saw myself as a soldier fighting a righteous cause. Many of us in the profession battled for press freedom, and suffered for it. In the end, we triumphed. October 5, 1992 became the “Dawn of a New Era.” Momentarily, fear gave way to hope. Cheddi Jagan gave us hope that power would not be abused.
I have come to respect Sharief for his courage, which was why we became close friends. A day or so after Walter Rodney was assassinated, I met Sharief at El Globo on Regent Street. He was wearing a red headband. We sank our sorrows with several shots of the devil’s brew, and determined to walk towards Burnham’s Residence, which is now Castellani House. We stood on Vlissengen Road and, in chorus, shouted several times as loudly as we could: “Burnham –Murderer!”
We saw two dark cars dart from Burnham’s yard, and Sharief and I ran towards Hadfield Street. It was beyond midnight, and dark. Though I ended up in a stinking, muddy, concrete drain I picked up a brick and was about to hurl it at the windscreen of one of the oncoming cars. I had seen in films that bricks could stop tanks, or so I later told my friends. Sharief interrupted my attempted bravado, pushed me to the side of a building as the car sped past us. We survived.
In spite of the fear, we stood up and spoke out. We must do no less today. October 5 must command us to take the higher ground and ride on a new wave of our democracy for greater tolerance and better governance.