Nothing can gainsay the continual retrogression of media freedom in Guyana under the administration of the People’s National Congress (PNC). In those days much time and effort was spent in strangling the free flow of information by ensuring that government exerted tight control over the information disseminated by the state-owned media. Simultaneously, various restraints were placed on the capacity of those private media houses that did not share the then ruling party’s views on any issue whatsoever from functioning effectively. The various other ruses to which the PNC resorted to curtail media freedom are a matter of public record.
A point was eventually reached where the Orwellian notion that state control of the media was in keeping with the country’s developmental needs was exposed for what it was – an unpalatable and farcical attempt to rationalize the suppression of media freedom. The PNC’s media doctrine persisted, however, long beyond the point at which it was exposed though it encountered increasing public cynicism and intellectual resistance. Some of those functionaries who helped to fashion the PNC’s media doctrine even sought, eventually, to distance themselves from it.
In opposition, the PPP was a vocal critic of the continual erosion of media freedom. It did more than that. It set out a media freedom regimen of its own which embraced both the state-run and privately-owned media in a collective commitment to an unfettered two-way flow of communication which is the very essence of media freedom. In effect the PPP, by its pronouncements, held itself up to a higher order than that which obtained under its predecessor, as far as media and media freedom were concerned.
After more than two decades in office the PPP is encountering no small measure of difficulty in rationalizing its patent failure to live up to the standards of media freedom which it had so enthusiastically embraced whilst in opposition. Its most glaring inheritances from its predecessor are its tight and uncompromising control of the state-owned media and the use of various devices to limit the effectiveness of the privately-owned media. Having failed to meet those media freedom standards which it had professed to believe in even before taking office in 1992 the PPP then resorted to making comparisons with the PNC in office whenever it was required to make a public pronouncement on media freedom.
It happened again on Friday evening when Attorney General Anil Nandlall filled in for President Donald Ramotar at a World Press Freedom Day reception hosted by United States Ambassador Brent Hardt. In the presence of an audience that included a number of veteran media functionaries and other well-informed public persons, Mr. Nandlall trotted out the political administration’s customary we’re doing better than the PNC line.
Not only did the ruse appear to fall flat on its face as far as audience approval rating was concerned, but it also attracted periodic bouts of vigorous heckling, the sort of thing that you don’t expect to encounter at a diplomatic reception.
These, of course, are considerably more enlightened days than those in which the PNC administration sought to lead the nation to believe that the media were better off under the state’s control. One would have thought, therefore, that to declare itself to be doing better than the PNC did as far as media freedom is concerned is to say nothing of serious consequence; and yet that is exactly what the Attorney General did on Friday evening, commencing his presentation with a recitation of the transgressions of media freedom perpetuated by the PNC. The Ambassador’s guests appeared more than a trifle nonplussed by Mr. Nandlall’s ploy.
Of course there are many more privately-owned media houses in Guyana today than there were under the PNC though some evidently find greater favour with government than others and those which do not are sometimes appropriately reminded of that fact; so that whether the PPP likes it or not there are examples of its treatment of privately-owned media houses that amount to flagrant denials of media freedom.
On Friday evening the Attorney General opted for the government’s familiar least line of resistance in defending itself against the views articulated by the US envoy on issues like the government’s censorship of opposition views on state media and less than fair distribution of state advertising. Quite simply, that approach didn’t work.
Even assuming that Mr. Nandlall might have felt too discomfited by the directness of the Ambassador’s particular pronouncements on censorship of opposition views by limiting state media access and less than fair distribution of state advertising, he might have at least opted for an enlightening comment on Ambassador Hardt’s more diplomatic view that “there is more that can be done to protect and expand freedom of the press and the free exchange of ideas and perspectives it makes possible.” Of course there is more that can be done to protect and expand media freedom in Guyana and one assumes that such a theme might, perhaps, have provided the Attorney General with a better comfort zone. Not only would taking that road have been decidedly more ingenious; Mr. Nandlall might even have averted the intermittent heckling which, given the nature of the occasion he (and the various other government and ruling party officials who attended Friday evening’s reception) may well have found more than a trifle discomfiting.
What, effectively, was a disingenuous attempt by the Attorney General to present the PPP as a paragon of media freedom, fell at the first hurdle of seeking to make a comparison with the PNC era. It left Mr. Nandlall with the task of accounting for his government’s own various and flagrant transgressions of media freedom and he could not have hoped to get away with such an omission in the presence of such an enlightened audience.
What the government fails to understand is that a favourable comparison with a decadent and now distant past does nothing to erase its own contemporary transgressions of media freedom. It must begin to compare the unsavory elements of its own track record on media freedom with other democratic countries with which it seeks to compare itself in other respects. Only then will it come to understand how far short of desired standards of media freedom it continues to fall.