Enemy of the state

This week, I found myself reflecting on my journalistic career and the toxic nature of the relationship that develops between the independent press in Guyana and our government, particularly within the last few years of the PPP/C’s scandal-filled management of the state.

20131214de recordIt was an old schoolmate—now embedded in the system—who actually set me upon this course when I ran into him a few days ago and he enquired what I am up to these days, besides, of course, writing an “anti-government” column.

To be clear, the label was not his. He was merely regurgitating what is no doubt aired in government circles, which is, that Iana Seales, like other independent writers in the country, is anti-government.

The label is as old and dirty as our politics itself. We live in a country where successive governments and, in particular, this PPP/C government, arrogantly believe that they are exempt from criticism. And if you dare to criticise any aspect of governance, you are not only anti-government, but you are also an enemy of the state.

I recall the bitter and divisive statements which were being peddled during the government’s propaganda-infused consultations on the anti-money laundering bill held earlier this year. It was either you supported the government’s decision to pass what they said was a Caribbean Financial Action Task Force-compliant bill and deal with opposition amendments after, or you were an enemy of progress.

Often I am tempted to say “only in Guyana,” but I understand how dictatorial regimes work and unfortunately they exist elsewhere. However, what I do not understand is how this government can preach democracy and inclusion and at the same time fight to block scrutiny of its actions and how it is managing our country.

Take, for example, the specialty hospital project and the controversy that attended the award of the contract to Surendra Engineering, long before the government’s recent decision to terminate the contract; or, the sole prequalification of the New GPC to supply drugs for the health sector; or the Baishanlin exposés that are still reverberating across the country. If we are to address these, pointing to the lack of transparency in contract awards and government agreements with investors and the seemingly advantageous nature of such transactions for certain parties, the labels would start to pile up.

I believe that we need to examine—and now is as good a time as any—the issue of free speech and its fading presence in our democracy. This is in addition to calling the government out for its ugly and isolating attitude towards citizens who ask questions and who are committed to staying engaged in the democratic process.

What makes me anti-government? My weekly contributions in this column are meant to express my own views and feelings about what is happening in our country. The writings are meant to engage people, whether at home or in the diaspora, on the issues affecting us, and to trigger conservations about justice, human rights, and more important, basic rights.

There was a reason I got involved in journalism: I wanted to stay true to who I am and feed the curious spirit which burns within me. I had such amazing teachers; beginning with the two persons I call mother and father, who taught me that asking questions was important. Having a certain level of consciousness in those early years came from interacting with elders and learning from mentors in my community.

I was writing about life in my street and how difficult it was for some people since I was in Primary School and, thankfully, no one ever discouraged me from asking questions and from writing. I enjoyed those years of writing freely and sharing my work with people who critiqued it and, consequently, strengthened it.

Today, I can testify to living and working as a journalist in a country where the state viewed me as an “opposition supporter” because of my writing. Former president Bharrat Jagdeo even went as far as to label journalists in the country “carrion crows” and “vultures.” I remember thinking at the time that perhaps we are vultures, because we are left to report on the decaying structures of our society; a country torn by political strife and racial and social divisions.

This new Donald Ramotar administration is no different—if we speak out against corruption and the numerous scandals that have weakened his presidency, we are labeled as “anti-government” or treated to some inane commentary by party faithfuls about how citizens are working against the national interest.

There is an urgent need for us to elevate the level of debate in this country and for citizens to demand greater accountability from government, even if it means being labeled. Over the years, I have proudly worn every label they gave me because I firmly believe that we have a duty, as citizens, to tell things as they are. What’s more, we do this from a position outside the reach of politicians and governments.

Tomorrow as I celebrate another year on earth and blow out a few candles, I will reflect on my years of living as a “vulture” and shining a light in those dark corners the government would like to keep dim. And I do so while forever indebted to all the people who came into my life and helped me to understand that a voice is the most important means citizens have to make their ideas and interests visible.

Free speech is not a subversive activity—it is a fundamental human right and we are not going to truly progress if this government cannot find room to accommodate the full breath of the voices and opinions of the people in our democracy.

Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/iseales

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