Government and media freedom

As we reported the week before last, Attorney General Anil Nandlall answered US Ambassador Brent Hardt’s comments on the state of media freedom in this country in the first instance by saying that press freedom should be taken in the context of the evolutionary process of the country, and that “not so far in the distant past” all kinds of aberrations occurred ‒ some of which he listed ‒ including the denial of newsprint. The comments were made at a reception hosted by Ambassador Hardt commemorating World Press Freedom Day.

In our Tuesday editorial on the subject last week, we reiterated the point that PPP spokespersons cannot keep retreating behind references to the infamous 24 years when they find themselves under criticism; what the PNC did is no defence of their own shortcomings.

It might be remarked, of course, that there is no such thing as the need for an evolutionary process to bring about press freedom; it can be denied under one regime and then fully restored under the one immediately succeeding it. In this instance in any case, when the PPP acceded to office in 1992, the media situation was not what it had been when Mr Burnham died in 1985.

As the older members of the ruling party well know, the Mirror became a beneficiary of the more relaxed environment of Mr Hoyte’s seven years as President, when he lifted the ban on its receipt of newsprint, and also allowed the PPP to import a new press, something Burnham had refused to permit. Hoyte also lifted restrictions on the Catholic Standard bringing in newsprint, and most importantly, allowed the introduction of a new independent newspaper – the Stabroek News. Before even the PPP entered office, therefore, there had been nearly seven years of a far less constrained atmosphere where the media were concerned, so even if one were to accept the specious argument put forward by Mr Nandlall that media freedom had to be looked at in the context of an evolutionary process, there had already been some considerable evolution under Hoyte, and it was incumbent on the administration after 1992 to take that process further.

But as everyone is well aware, among other things the government has exercised unashamed dominion over the radio spectrum, and the Attorney General was being utterly disingenuous when he told the gathering there were eight radio stations only two of which were controlled by the government. Surely he could not have been labouring under the delusion that the media personnel he was addressing did not know that radio licences were hurriedly issued to friends and family of the PPP before the 2011 election, and before the Broadcasting Authority came into being. It was the kind of public pretence more associated with regimes of an autocratic hue – which is not to suggest that there is any evidence to indicate that the Authority as presently constituted is not itself politically partisan.

Then there is the issue of the withholding of advertisements from sections of the independent media, which was given a limited dry run in the distant days when Mr Asgar Ally was Minister of Finance. He had refused to allow Bank of Guyana ads to be carried in Stabroek News, and although he eventually relented, as is well known this newspaper endured a seventeen-month drought of government ads subsequent to that, apparently with a view to purging the media landscape for the introduction of a privately-run newspaper which was government friendly.

David de Caires, the late editor-in-chief of this newspaper, had proposed a mechanism for the fairer distribution of ads using objective criteria, including circulation, with some input from the Caribbean. It was not a proposal the government had any intention of entertaining, and it was to go on to withdraw ads from all the private media again in defiance of the provisions of the Declaration of Chapúltepec to which former President Jagdeo was a signatory and which outlaws the punitive use of state advertising, among other things. While a few of these ads have been restored, one has to wonder how Mr Nandlall would justify the placing of government advertisements in the Mirror, for example, considering it is a weekly party organ and has a minuscule circulation, as opposed to the independent press which is made up of national newspapers in the true sense, and which have infinitely greater circulations.

State advertising, which, after all, is paid for by public money, continues to be handled by the Government Information Agency (Gina), clearly on the basis of direct instructions from the government. As Mr de Caires pointed out a long time ago, this is not an arrangement conducive to fairness. At this stage one can only observe that there does not seem to be any good reason why individual ministries cannot handle their own advertising, as used to be the case. While it might not make the situation any fairer, it would return Gina to concentrating on its core functions, and from there we can perhaps move on to something fairer and more rational.

Gina’s other functions relate to operating as the information and communications arm of government ‒ unlike what some segments of the opposition seem to think, it is not a media house at all, and therefore ‘balance’ in terms of providing access to other political parties is not required of it. Having said that, however, no one is exactly clear what its precise responsibilities should be, since some of its publications do not fall under the general rubric of ‘information.’ While many governments have communication and information arms, and there may be a case for one here, the administration has never made any attempt to justify Gina in a coherent way, or define for the public’s benefit what its purpose truly is.

The Guyana Chronicle and NCN, on the other hand, are genuine media houses which happen to be state owned and for whom the concept of balance is alien; in fact they are little better than propaganda arms not just of the government, but also the ruling party. Again, the Attorney General gave a somewhat limp defence of their operations, while avoiding completely the core issues relating to the exclusion of the opposition and critical viewpoints. Even if, as he said, the public media are not driven by profit – although they cannot ignore that completely, one would have thought – and even if they targeted certain rural communities which may otherwise not have access to private media (which is only partly true at best) it still does not answer the fundamental criticism of the use of taxpayers’ money for party propaganda purposes. All that Mr Nandlall demonstrated was that the state media were better positioned to disseminate government propaganda than any other entity.

And finally, in answer to Ambassador Hardt’s criticism that reporters say they have difficulty accessing government officials, the Attorney General responded that he always makes himself available to the media. It is true; he does. Furthermore he is invariably helpful and displays no irritation in relation to the time he is contacted. Unfortunately, however, he is not typical; many of his colleagues frequently appear to be in hibernation as far as the media are concerned.

Around the Web