The Caribbean Press and the fiction of accountability

Until very recently one could be forgiven for looking perplexed at the mention of the name Caribbean Press. Unless you were part of the literary literati, little was known about the press, whose name suggests some if not wholly regional influence.

20130604transpIn recent months amidst pertinent and persistent calls for accountability, the press has been forced from apparent obscurity amid the controversy of its management by the state, revealing a myriad of problems, not the least of which is the mysterious way it purports to manage state funds. Regrettably, there are now more questions than answers on transparency and accountability of the Caribbean Press.

The website of the press (http://caribbeanpress.org/) is poor and resembles a basic blog. It contains no information that could dispel the recent criticisms in relation to accountability of the press. According to Global Voices.org, the Caribbean Press was founded in 2009 pursuant to a commitment by then president Bharrat Jagdeo at Carifesta X, which was hosted by Guyana. The press was intended to create an avenue for writers throughout the Anglo-phone Caribbean to get published.

Four years later, the press has come under scrutiny following public concerns first raised about the propriety of the press publishing a book authored by the daughter of the Minister of Culture, under whose portfolio management of the press falls. The minister has since claimed that he personally paid for the printing of all copies of the book. Several other questions have been publicly raised about the criteria for publication and who else plays a managing and accountable role in this press, if any, other than Professor David Dabydeen. There is very little known about the press other than it has republished a number of Guyanese ‘classics’ and works by Dabydeen, his sister, his cousin and the daughter of a minister. Given a commitment of US$100,000 or ($20,000,000) annually by the former president, it follows that the press has, four years later, received some $80,000,000 of taxpayers’ funds. So classics, one contemporary writer related to a minister and potentially $80,000,000 later, was it any surprise that questions would begin to surface about the management of the press?

The questions are as much about the decisions to publish as the management of the funds that the press ought to have received and the governance structure of the press.

Dabydeen as current editor of the press recently offered some insights on its management in an interview published in Stabroek News on May 14, 2013.  Dabydeen, whilst bemoaning the dearth of competent human resources affecting the efficacy of the press’s work and impacting its future, revealed that he made the decisions regarding works suitable for publication and included some “experts”.  He further added that …”as Professor of Lit and multiple winner of global literary prizes I am fairly qualified to assess literary merit”.  Dabydeen went on to say that he controlled the funds of the press.

This is surely shocking information for anyone concerned about the manner in which state entities manage public funds and the manner in which decisions are made regarding the beneficiaries of such funds. So the professor makes the decisions on who gets published and determines how monies are spent? Is this a one-man show? This begs the question; to whom is he accountable?

The truth, it seems, has been obfuscated by the fiction that all is well, that our cultural landscape among others is being managed by those who have the interests of the people of Guyana at heart and not their own and their kin.

The truth is that power corrupts. The Caribbean Press has not been spared the ugliness of the tarnish of corruption that has become so entrenched and so pervasive in Guyana that people, including those who govern, no longer recognise corrupt acts as fundamentally wrong and detrimental to the proper functioning of the society. No doubt the minister’s daughter is talented – several have attested to her promise as a writer. But contrary to Professor Dabydeen’s assertions in his letter (Stabroek News, 21/5/2013), surely she cannot be the sole writer of promise among her generation or any generation in Guyana today?

That such an assertion can be so easily made by the professor reveals the extent of the problems in Guyana today, where calls for regularity in process get overtaken by personality, name-calling, and insults regarding who is incompetent, lazy and lacking in talent.

Dabydeen later wrote an uncouth letter to the media insulting local writing as doggerel and puppyrel, hardly consistent with the diplomatic standards and behaviour expected of an ambassador of our nation. Unfortunately for him, his crude, insulting and undiplomatic behaviour says more about him than the local talent he seeks to denigrate. The professor may be eminently qualified to judge what is ‘dross’ who is lazy and who is incompetent; but surely he cannot be the sole authority on these qualities. Further, where taxpayers’ monies are involved, decisions should be entrusted to a committee of persons to ensure no taint of bias or favouritism. As it is, we cannot ignore the fact that Dabydeen seems to be exclusively in charge of a process that has published work by his sister, his cousin, the daughter of the minister he reports to and one of the local experts he has publicly thanked. Is it possible that the average citizen could wonder whether there is a conflict of interest at play here? The work by these persons may very well be deserving of publication, but it is entirely possible that in a country of many hundreds of thousands of people, there are others (young and old) who are deserving of that opportunity too. And the point is, processes should be in place to ensure that decisions are not only fairly made, but that they appear to be so as well. The decision-making process is as important as the decision itself and should be transparent and open to scrutiny.

If, according to Professor Dabydeen, we are to witness the demise of the press due to the human resource crisis it faces, who will account for the taxpayers’ monies spent to date?  Are we to rely on Mr Ruel Johnson to reveal those details?

The Minister of Culture in an interview featured in the Guyana Chronicle (May 24, 2013) attempted to address the recent controversy over the functioning of the press. He lauded the work done by those involved informing that persons who work along with the press do so voluntarily, including Dr Dabydeen. It is notable that he failed to make mention of the governance structure and the monies expended thus far on the work of the press. Indeed the minister’s response stands in stark contrast to the assertions made by Dr Dabydeen whose position seems to suggest the possibility of the demise of the press for reasons already mentioned.

In the interest of transparency and accountability the Transparency Institute is calling on Minister Frank Anthony to make available to the public the following information –

Details of the governance structure of the Caribbean Press

Names of the directors or Editorial Committee

The criteria for publication of submissions

Audited accounts including information on monies received and spent to date.

If the minister is unable or unwilling to provide the information then it is only reasonable for citizens to draw the conclusion that there has been a lack of accountability and transparency in relation to the management of the Caribbean Press and its finances contributed by taxpayers.

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