On Monday, October 7, Mr Clement Rohee, in his capacity as General Secretary of the PPP informed the media corps dutifully assembled in Freedom House, that his party wanted to regulate the local press. The PPP was of the “firm view,” he told them in all seriousness, that a “special body” should be established “to oversee the operations of the media and to defend the public against malpractice in the media.” Well in case for one heady moment anyone thought he was talking about the Guyana Chronicle, he was not; it is the Stabroek News and the Kaieteur News, it appears, from which the public is in such dire need of protection.
In his best apparatchik style General Secretary Rohee complained: “The party has observed that in the case of Stabroek News, while it religiously attends PPP press conferences and receives PPP press statements, nothing is carried in its columns”; in contrast, he continued, “prominence” is given to almost everything opposition politicians say which is “uncomplimentary of the government and the party.” And there was more to come. “Our position that the opposition media is anti-government and anti-PPP,” he told his audience with solemn mien, “is buttressed by the information we received from friends and supporters of the party that their letters and information are not carried and/or [are] butchered and buried.”
Anyone whose head was not reeling at this point, was able to give their undivided attention to the denouement, viz, that “certain sections of the media [for which read SN and KN] are infringing on the people right to freedom of information… the Guyanese people have a right to access information that is critical to make important decisions. This important aspect of freedom is often forsaken by the opposition media.” So here we have a classic contradiction whereby Mr Rohee is advocating a course of action which is designed to achieve the precise opposite of what he claims he is seeking.
Leaving the General Secretary’s bizarre rationalization aside, one has to wonder if the Central Committee has taken leave of its collective senses. If it has, then what is all of this about? It seems there is but one short answer: Censorship. However, if that is indeed what the CC wants, it is living in a dream world at this point in Guyana’s political proceedings. That aside, let us imagine for one wild moment that the government established a body in the immediate future to “regulate” the press, the members of which would be hand-picked by Freedom House. Let us further imagine the PPP then ensured the body was snowed with a litany of complaints from party sympathisers about the independent newspapers (bar the Guyana Times). Let us also imagine that this body solemnly fulfilled its party duty by issuing a flurry of decisions which all sounded like the General Secretary speaking.
The problem is that for the moment it would run into a major impediment. Under current laws it would have no power to impose sanctions for ‘contraventions’ of its code unless all the newspapers agreed to this, something which from the vantage point of Stabroek News is not going to happen in a hurry. In other words, without the backing of sanctions it would not be in a position to regulate anyone or anything, and as such would be a toothless Chihuahua. It might, of course, have nuisance value if it issued an endless catalogue of empty decisions against the independent press, but it would still face the problem that no one would take it seriously. So why on earth, one wonders, would the Central Committee want to put itself in that position?
Mr Rohee’s presentation to the media was in certain respects revealing. Mention was made above about his complaint that this newspaper attended PPP press conferences and then did not report on them. This was probably a reference to an earlier briefing where he had made entirely unsubstantiated allegations of a serious nature against the opposition in relation to the current upsurge in crime. As is our norm ‒ and, incidentally, in consonance with the media code of practice to which the all media were signatories during the last few elections ‒ we did not report these, and would not ordinarily do so except in a context where the party so accused responded. The General Secretary then moved to his keyboard, and wrote a letter which included the same allegations, and which we edited for the same reasons. Mr Rohee, therefore, is clearly confusing the term ‘information’ with PPP propaganda – in this case inflammatory propaganda – and has convinced himself that the Stabroek News should become a mirror image of the Chronicle ‒ or perhaps the Mirror.
Maybe Mr Rohee’s memory needs jogging on the matter of the Media Monitoring Unit which found during the last election campaign that the state media gave coverage to the government as against the opposition in a ratio of 8:1 and the Chronicle in particular gave the PPP/C a 9:1 advantage over the opposition. The Stabroek News, on the other hand, gave generally balanced coverage, it was found. The trend in the Chronicle, and the other state media, for that matter, has not changed direction since then, and they have been the subject of constant complaints about their glaring lack of balance and denial of access to the opposition. There was no word, of course, from the General Secretary about the Guyanese people’s right to access information in the state media, where he could more properly have directed his attention and where he could actually exert some influence for change.
One cannot help but wonder whether the Central Committee, led by its General Secretary, is living in a time warp. It subsists on the myth that the press in the 1960s brought down Jagan’s government, and while it is quite true that there were elements of the press of those days which were undeniably scurrilous (they have no direct equivalent today), we are living in an altogether different era. There is the internet with its web sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like, as well as email and chat rooms, etc. Then there are iPads and smart phones which allow their users to keep abreast of what is happening outside, and make it possible for them to maintain instant communication with any number of people. Information can be relayed in the modern world long before Freedom House can even concentrate its mind to make an announcement about a happening, let alone issue a press release. Does the Central Committee imagine that like a deus ex machina it can stop all that?
The unpalatable truth for General Secretary Rohee is that while he might prefer to button up the society in the fashion of North Korea, it can’t be done any longer. Let us suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the sectors of the press to which he takes such exception ceased to function; in terms of the volume of criticism to which the government would be exposed, the situation would stay the same. It might not go into the newspaper, but people would still text each other about it, phone each other, email each other, meet on the social media, send photos to whomever, and so on and so on. People will still think what they want to think, and still find an avenue to say what they want to say.
Furthermore, if – again purely for the sake of argument – all that people had to read was government sanctioned ‘news’, they would not believe it. Have Mr Rohee and the CC forgotten so quickly the story of the Chronicle in PNC times? What makes them believe that people are more gullible now than they used to be?
The PPP, especially in recent times, has had a very narrow definition of democracy, confined largely to the matter of elections. But that is not true democracy, although it represents a primary element in it. There simply can be no true democracy if there is no free media (and nowadays, that would have to be extended to free internet as well); democracy and censorship are incompatible. Possibly with an awareness of appearances, the government’s previous assault on Stabroek News was indirect, being accomplished through the withdrawal of state advertisements for seventeen months beginning in 2006. This was in clear defiance of the terms of the Declaration of Chapúltepec to which this government is a signatory. After resuming the placement of ads, these were subsequently withdrawn again, but this time to the independent press as a whole.
Not all members of the PPP at the time of the withdrawal of state advertisements from this paper approved of it; Mrs Jagan, for example, did not. She and some others remembered the struggle with Burnham over the Mirror and the attempt to stop it printing through the denial of newsprint as well as the refusal of a permit to import a new press. And now the same party which was once the victim of Burnham’s indirect censorship, wants to censor the present generation of independent newspapers. It must be the ultimate irony.