Board member Ruel Johnson disagrees that Chronicle EIC can fire columnists

Ruel Johnson

At least one member of the board of the state-owned Guyana Chronicle newspaper is not ready to co-sign a decision that Editor-in-Chief (EIC) Nigel Williams has the authority to fire columnists David Hinds and Lincoln Lewis.

Ruel Johnson who sits on the Editorial Sub-Committee of the board told Stabroek News on Friday that under his list of duties and powers, Williams can only fire contracted workers including freelancers with due cause none of which was presented in the case of either columnist.

“The EIC does not have the power to unilaterally change the direction of the paper and content in general. This has implications for target audience and marketing and by virtue of this requires not only engagement of other sections of the entity, advertising and marketing in particular but guidance in this regard by the Board”, he explained.

Johnson explained that at a meeting of the sub-committee, the EIC stated that “he was under pressure to cease the columns.”

He stressed that though he is a member of the sub-committee along with Tabitha Sarabo-Halley, Bert Wilkinson, Karen Davis and Troy Edmonson he was not present at this informal initial meeting.

He noted however that having already unilaterally stopped publication of the columns, Williams sought to inform the board of his actions.

“He proposed his course which included the cessation of two other columns he had started, written by Sherod Duncan and Leonard Craig and they advised that if he intended to go ahead with those pre-conditions, the best possible course was a short message,” Johnson noted. However despite this statement of his position Williams only communicated with Hinds and Lewis

Noting the EIC reference of being “under pressure”, Johnson said he asked him at the board meeting what external considerations were used in removing the columns.

“He said stakeholders. Pressed, he said there were all sort of stakeholders. He was asked what disqualified those columnists specifically and he said feedback without specifying. He was asked to produce evidence of negative feedback to support his decision and he offered low site views. He was asked to support this claim. He has not,” Johnson further detailed.

He also took aim at an explanation provided by fellow Board Member Duncan. On his Facebook page Duncan noted that “written into the EIC’s Contract of Employment is the remit to hire, fire and reinstate columnists. No such power is reposed in a Director or collective Board. The EIC therefore acted within the scope of his remit.”

For Johnson this explanation is deliberately misleading and disingenuous.

“I explained to the Board that the powers of the (EIC)  were circumscribed by the power of the board to sanction or correct his actions, particularly if those actions were capricious and unwarranted and brought the integrity of the company into question. Those who chose to uphold his decision did so by ignoring not only (Williams’)  failure to offer credible reasons to end the columns but actual recent precedent in similar decisions,” he maintained adding that a decision that should have been reversed and the EIC sanctioned was instead upheld on the false premise that the EIC had absolute power to fire, without question, any worker contracted to the company.

Johnson argued that it was completely unethical and premised on absurd logical contortions that ignored both the letter and spirit of Board oversight. He added that reasons for dismissal of the columnists should have been made in writing on record to the Board.

In a press statement on Thursday the board indicated that by a majority vote at its meeting on March 13 it was decided that the authority to reinstate the columnists did not reside in the Board.

“The hiring, firing, and reinstatement of columnists is within the remit of the Editor-in-Chief as per job description,” the statement said

Williams, in justifying the decision, told this newspaper that in its continued re-branding the Guyana Chronicle is seeking columnists who can write specialist pieces in areas following the country’s current development trajectory, which includes areas of oil and gas and national security and specifically border security areas, in the quest to educate the readership.

Lewis however stated that he interpreted his termination as “an act of suppression in the state-owned newspaper” and charged that there is “evidently political interference” in the operations of the newspaper.

In a statement, he explained that he was not surprised by the actions since “recent developments” suggested that the powers that be were not comfortable with his points of view, “particularly those that sought to hold them accountable as a caring, representative, inclusionary government that is just and fair.”

Hinds also referred to his relationship with the state newspaper as uncomfortable because he is not a yes-man.

The political science professor further argued that while he supports the government, he is not muzzled by that support as he lives by the principle that support must not be blind and uncritical.

He opined that the Chronicle has slipped right back to where it was during the Bharrat Jagdeo years, becoming an unvarnished mouthpiece of the government rather than a medium where all stakeholders have equal coverage and are subjected to the same scrutiny.

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