Guyana still ‘partly free’ in media freedom

-Freedom House

With a score of 33, the country is ranked 68 alongside Italy in the 2013 global ranking of 197 countries and territories, while it ranks 17 of the 35 territories in the Americas, according to the Freedom of the Press report, which was released yesterday.

Freedom House, which is a US-based ‘think tank’ that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, says the media freedom index “assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and internet freedom in every country in the world” through analysis of the events of each calendar year. Countries are assigned scores between 0 (best) and 100 (worst) based on a set of 23 methodology questions and the degree to which each country permits the free flow of news and information determines its classification. Countries scoring 0 to 30 are regarded as having ‘Free’ media; 31 to 60, ‘Partly Free’ media; and 61 to 100, ‘Not Free’ media.

Of the 197 countries and territories assessed during 2012, Freedom House said in a press release yesterday, a total of 63 or 32% were rated ‘Free;’ 70 or 36% were rated ‘Partly Free;’ and 64 or 32% were rated ‘Not Free.’ It noted that the percentage of the world’s population living in societies with a fully free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade, with the analysis showing that less than 14% of the world’s inhabitants lived in countries with a ‘Free’ press, while 43% live in countries with a ‘Partly Free’ press and 43% live in ‘Not Free’ media environments.

Although the rankings were released yesterday, the country report on the Guyana’s status was not available up to press time.

However, based on the listing of the Caricom territories—excluding Montserrat, which is not included—ranked in the Americas, only Antigua and Barbuda (18) and Haiti (25) placed lower than Guyana. Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda and Haiti are among the 14 countries with ‘Partly Free’ status in the region, which overall experienced a decline in press freedom last year, according to the report.

Last year, Guyana slipped in the rankings as a result of “heightened polarisation of the media” and “verbal intimidation of journalists by members of the ruling party,” in the lead up to and during the November, 2011 general elections. Ongoing libel cases—including the suit brought against columnist Freddie Kissoon by former president Bharrat Jagdeo—and the passage of what Freedom House dubbed a “restrictive” broadcast law that “dramatically increased fines for broadcasting without a licence” were also identified as contributors to “a more restrictive” media environment.

The 2012 country report noted that relations between the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government and some media outlets deteriorated during the year.

Over the years, it said, the government has employed various tactics, including advertising boycotts, to stifle criticism. However, in the run-up to the general elections, the report said, PPP members grew increasingly hostile to sections of the media regarded as favouring the opposition, and cases of censorship were reported.

It cited a PPP rally on October 9, where Jagdeo pointed at journalists covering the event and described them as “vultures and carrion crows” who should be “thrown into jail” for criticising him and his government. His remarks were echoed by his political adviser, Gail Teixiera, who compared Guyana’s media to that in Rwanda in the context of the latter’s role in the Rwandan genocide, it added.

The report also cited Jagdeo’s decision to impose a four-month suspension on CNS Channel Six—a decision that was later indefinitely postponed—as well as the findings of the Common-wealth Election Observer Mission, which said that the media code of conduct had not been respected, and indicated that state-owned television, radio, and print media had shown overt bias toward the government and ruling party.

Although the report said Jagdeo’s sensitivity to criticism saw some journalists experience difficulty in obtaining access to government events and press conferences, it credited newly-elected president Donald Ramotar with taking a positive step soon after assuming office when he lifted a three-year-old ban preventing Gordon Moseley, head of the Guyana Press Association and a Capitol News reporter, from entering the president’s office and residence.

Although broadcast and freedom of information bills were introduced in 2011, the reported noted criticisms by both media rights organisations and the then main opposition PNCR about the legislation.

And while the breaking of the existing state monopoly on radio was seen as one positive aspect of the broadcast legislation, concerns by media proprietors about the lack of transparency in the license-granting process, as the requirements of being “fit, proper, and financially sufficient” were vaguely defined, were also mentioned in the report.

Last year’s report also noted that the distribution of state advertising has been a source of major controversy for some time and it pointed to the withdrawal of state advertisements from the Stabroek News from 2006 to 2008, when advertising was resumed without explanation. The report said “the majority of paid advertising appears in progovernment newspapers, including the newly launched Guyana Times, which is owned by a friend of Jagdeo.”

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