On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), members of the media yesterday spoke of President David Granger not holding press conferences and lamented the lack of access to information from government ministers.
At a WPFD dialogue organized by the Guyana Press Association (GPA), a member of the media, Derwayne Wills, observed that it has been 411 days since the president last held a press conference.
The event was held in collaboration with the Commonwealth Youth Human Rights and Democracy Network and the Commonwealth Youth Peace Ambassadors Network (CYPAN) at Moray House under the theme: “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies.”
During the dialogue, moderated by attorney-at-law and blogger, Ayana Mc Calmont, Wills lamented that “a media scrum is not a press conference…” and said that even the president’s weekly television programme, ‘Public Interest’ “does not suffice.”
He pointed out that “out of the 30-minute programme, 20 minutes were dedicated to questions” decided upon by the president’s team.
He noted that following concerns raised on the issue by former Speaker of the House, Ralph Ramkarran and Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, the President announced that the full 30 minutes would be dedicated to the two journalists to ask questions.
He said too that getting on the programme poses a difficulty, saying that in February he contacted
someone from the government’s publicity unit in an effort to reappear on the programme but is still waiting on a response.
He feels “there is a huge wedge between the media and the presidency.”
This is so especially since “most of the information comes directly from the Ministry of the Presidency in press releases that we cannot question, we cannot ask what is the reason for these decisions and we cannot ask why are you going on these trips…”
Besides, he said, at post-cabinet press briefings if certain questions are asked, the media is told that those matters were not discussed at cabinet.
In her comments, media practitioner, Julia Johnson said government officials are “still of the belief that they don’t have to speak to the media or they have to speak to specific media people to get the information out there.’
She noted that “when you are in a deadline and need the information at that time, it is not forthcoming. We would like to have the information exclusively and in a timely manner but instead that information would come by way of a press release to the general media corps, maybe the next day. …And you want to have that exclusive story.”
President of the GPA, Neil Marks, who chaired the opening segment of the event, said the media in Guyana has contributed to an inclusive society through improved coverage for elections.
He credited the media for helping to end violent elections, after it assisted to craft a media code of conduct a few years ago. The media, including the state media, he said, was given a lot of credit back in 2006 for engineering the first violence-free elections.
He also said that state media workers still face a lot of pressure in their work and said it is time that ends. He noted that Minister of Communities, Ronald Bulkan had suggested to the Chronicle “what should be the order of their stories, what should have been on their front page. Of course the President excused him by saying that was his personal view.”
With regards to whether social media is a threat to the media’s role in providing accurate
information, Wills said newspapers fact check information before publishing but that they now compete on similar platform with social media where it is “difficult to differentiate between fact and fake news.”
He recalled too that in 2015 during the general elections, there was a social media post that was going around about a road that was being burnt and blocked in a community. The information was shared on social media that it was happening in Guyana. But it turned out that the people in Dominica were protesting for the government to fix their road. By the time it was clarified, three hours had already elapsed.
On the question of how young social media users can promote peace and inclusiveness in Guyana, another media practitioner, Nicholas Peters feels that the most helpful way is to educate them.
He said the GPA can objectively help to provide that information and build the credibility that young people need to accurately decide what is relevant and important to share.
With regards to protecting the rights of journalists, Ronson Gray, co-founder of local IT company, IntellectStorm, said this can happen if the media fraternity work in unity instead of going against each other.
Nazima Raghubir, GPA’s executive member said the entity has petitioned the government for freedom of the press to be explicit in the constitution.
Johnson pointed out that there is also a danger where the “Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force intelligence officers find themselves in the midst of the media with the GINA press passes, pretending to be media practitioners.”
She pointed out that “we as media practitioners cannot pretend to be a policeman or soldier. They have distinct roles in our society and we cannot afford to have them secreting themselves to capturing whatever footage and whatever voice pieces they want from people…”
Raghubir said freedom of expression and freedom of the press are two distinctive issues but they overlap each other.
She explained that freedom of expression speaks to all citizens and their rights to express their views and thoughts and to practice their religion while freedom of the press speaks to members of the media as well as letter writers.
Another media worker, Janelle Persaud recalled that a government minister did not think he was obligated to answer a question on an issue that was affecting Guyanese.
She said if laws are in place it would give media workers the rights to represent the interest of the people.
Leroy Phillips, a visually impaired freelance producer at the National Communications Network said he appreciates the coverage that has been given to people with disability over the years but would like to see a balance in the people that are featured and the issues that they face.
Dr. Joyce Jonas who spoke on behalf of Moray House Trust told the GPA that their choice of Moray House as their venue could not be more appropriate as the building was the home of David de Caires, the founder and first editor of Stabroek News and his family.
She said that on his death, the trust was set up as his legacy by his children and his widow, Doreen de Caires. Its work rests on the belief that a healthy culture needs ideas that can circulate and they should be robustly interrogated and debated.
Dr. Juan Miguel Diez, Director of the United Nations (UN) Information Centre for the Caribbean, guest speaker at the event, said critical and well-researched journalism is vital to expose misinformation.
“Such reporting,” he said, “whether by journalists, citizen journalists, community reporters or media professionals, should be the result of thorough investigation and fact-checking, and can contrast different voices to reflect the diversity and plurality of opinions.”
Dr. Diez, a former journalist, noted that rumours, falsehoods and emotional manipulation can affect our opinions, incite hatred and exacerbate violence.
He said too that “quality journalism informs citizens about issues that affect them, holds institutions accountable and contributes to peace and democracy by providing a voice to all. It promotes mutual understanding when tensions arise, and it empowers people to participate in the democratic functioning of their countries. Quality journalism can only thrive when media is free, independent and pluralistic.”
Executive member of the GPA, Nazima Raghubir
Sections of the gathering