The Vega Azurit cocaine incident and the Stabroek News ‘agenda’

At the risk, perhaps, of provoking yet another of Mr. Khurshid Sattaur’s now familiar tirades against the Stabroek News, we again enquire into the status of his promised enquiry into the Vega Azurit cocaine trafficking incident made more than a month ago.

We have published two separate editorials – on March 22 and March 29 – on this issue. In the first editorial we applauded the promise of an enquiry. We conceded too that drug-related probes are sometimes challenged by the elaborate extent to which drug traffickers usually go to cover their tracks.

Interestingly and quite unexpectedly, the Commissioner wrote to us after the publication of the March 22 editorial, expressing his appreciation of the sentiments expressed in that editorial. While our editorial was concerned with being fair and objective rather than with seeking the Commissioner General’s approval of what we had written, we, nonetheless, noted what he had to say.

The second editorial sounded a note of greater urgency. We pointed to the “dissonance” that had crept into the initial investigation and opined that the note of optimism sounded by the Commissioner General in his first “up front” interview with this newspaper had become “watered down” by subsequent developments. Still, we did not rule out the hope of a meaningful enquiry.

Given Guyana’s unsavory reputation as a transshipment point for cocaine trafficking and, moreover, the country’s dismal record in either staunching the flow of drugs or arresting drug traffickers, we believe that a successful probe into the Vega Azurit incident can help reverse the perception that lack of results derives from lack of effort. In this context, what troubles us is the view that is often expressed that the authorities actually facilitate the drug trade and that people in official authority benefit from the trade; and the absence of hard evidence to support this view does not make the view itself any less troubling. That is why we believe that a successful enquiry into the Vega Azurit incident is so important.

That is why, too, we have persisted on the issue of the promised enquiry and more than a month after that promise we cannot be expected to be indifferent to the absence of any persuasive evidence that much progress has been made. Our persistence appears not to have sat well with the Commissioner General. He has now moved a considerable distance from the sentiments which he expressed following the publication of our March 22 editorial, asserting that the Stabroek News has “an agenda.” He has also informed our reporter that he will have no further exchanges with this newspaper on the matter. What an interesting turn of events?

What now appears to irk Mr. Sattaur is our refusal to leave the Vega Azurit incident alone. But what does he expect us to do? Is it not the duty of any responsible media house to monitor the progress of his promised enquiry and, through our own investigative pursuits, seek to unearth the facts of a matter as important as this and to bring those to public attention? And even if the revelations that arise out of such investigations were to prove unpalatable to the Commissioner, would it not be the correct thing for him to confront those truths and deal with them in the context of whatever action has to be taken both to punish the offenders and to close such loopholes as might have caused the Vega Azurit occurrence in the first place? Instead, the Commissioner General has chosen to deny us the benefit of his own vantage point in pursuit of our investigations.

But that will not deter us. We will continue to ask about the enquiry and to place such information as we acquire in the public domain. That, Mr. Commissioner General, is why we exist. We understand only too well that in an environment such as ours, fulfilling our mandate requires persistence and tenacity. We are aware that there is simply no other way to overcome the now familiar official proclivity for tendering vetted information, making convoluted and ambiguous statements designed to direct attention away from real truths, and sometimes, simply remaining silent.

It is this thicket of obstacles that the independent media must often navigate in order to serve its public purpose. Ironically, those obstacles often serve to sharpen our focus, compelling us to seek more challenging avenues to the truths that we seek.

Keeping the Vega Azurit incident in the public eye has, up until now, been accomplished mostly by reliance on information gleaned from sources that are positioned to offer critical insights. We have pursued these with some measure of success. Of course, our work would benefit even more from open and honest discourses with the Commissioner General and with other officials involved in the enquiries. In the absence of that facility, however, we cannot abandon our responsibility to uphold the public’s right to know. We cannot allow a state of affairs in which the public’s knowing becomes entirely dependent on the powers that be to telling, and telling only what they choose to tell. That, Mr. Commissioner General, defeats the entire purpose of a free press.

Up until now, the revelations from the Vega Azurit incident bare a tale of glaring irregularities and inexplicable, perhaps deliberate departure from established procedures in the processing of the timber consignment in which the cocaine was found.  Even before that, there was the ill-explained decision to remove the task of cargo inspection from the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit and place it in the hands of the Customs Officers. The Commissioner General, understandably, will not be happy over these revelations, since, in his own mind, they may well reflect poorly on the performance his Customs Officers. Indeed, what has been revealed might even suggest a measure of involvement by Customs functionaries in the chain of events that led to the cocaine being shipped to Jamaica. The pursuit of fairness, accuracy and honesty and fulfillment of our public duty are our first concerns. That is our only agenda.
Again we say that Commissioner General Sattaur’s terrain is by no means the easiest to tend. We understand his concern over the number of times that Customs systems have been weighed and found wanting.  We can only say to him that the pressures go with the territory.

The Commissioner General’s solution lies in doing what he can to hasten the pace of the enquiry into the Vega Azurit cocaine trafficking incident by ensuring that CANU benefits from the fullest possible cooperation from his own office. If that does not happen and if the report on the findings raise reasonable questions about the veracity of the investigation then the Commissioner General can hardly blame us for what, inevitably, is bound to be a further rise in the level, of public cynicism over a Customs and Trade Administration that is perceived to be afflicted by corruption and a political administration that continually demonstrates a studied reluctance to go the full distance in thoroughly investigating and weeding out those corrupt practices.

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