Public v private

If President Donald Trump trumped himself last week, Guyana had its own lapse to deal with, albeit not of the same scale or character as that of the ‘Genius of Stability.’

It was the Director of Information Imran Khan who stepped outside his crease on Wednesday and posted on his personal Facebook page the question as to whether the Indian High Commission here was not interfering in this country’s internal affairs, and was not attempting to engage in the destabilization of the coalition government. This all related to the invitation by the High Commission to parliamentarians of Indian descent to attend a conference of Persons of Indian Origin in New Delhi. Mr Khan groused that of the 23 people invited, 20 were PPP/C opposition MPs, and went on to enquire if the High Commission “deliberately invite[d] three Coalition Government back-bench parliamentarians while specifically ignoring ministers?”

If that were not enough, Mr Khan had tagged High Commissioner V Mahalingam in his post, and the diplomat responded to him, saying, “…reckless comments on such a serious issue on social media with the clear intention to mislead the general public by none other than Director of Public Information is unfortunate, unprofessional and to say the least, mischievous given the excellent bilateral relations being enjoyed by both India and Guyana and the ongoing friendly cooperation in various multilateral fora.”

In the first place, Mr Khan got his facts wrong, which hardly does him credit as the Director of Public Information, since the invitations sent to all countries were only for parliamentarians who were not ministers. The High Commissioner said that many in the top hierarchy of the Guyana government as well as in the Guyana High Commission in India were aware of the invitations and the rationale for not inviting ministers. The Director, however, was not prepared to let the matter go, and in a subsequent post he raised the question of the Attorney-General of Jamaica, Ms Malahoo-Forte, who attended the conference although she is a ranking member of the Jamaican cabinet. Mr Mahalingam corrected him once again, explaining that while she was an elected MP, she was not a minister of government.

One might have thought that before holding forth on this topic, Mr Khan would at a minimum have acquainted himself with all the data, so that he  at least displayed a grasp of the premises on which to base his opinions, although it should be hastily added that the latter in principle were out of order, for reasons which will be expanded on below.

Of some importance is the question of Mr Khan’s position in government. His job as a state functionary in the information field requires that he relays to the media and the public information about the government, their policy stances, decisions on the issues of the day, etc. The one thing it does not require him to do is to express personal opinions, lest those be confused with government positions.

It does not help him very much to say, as he has done in defence of his actions, that as a private citizen he was entitled to an opinion. “This is an issue that I raised as a citizen,” he told Stabroek News, “I have asked questions as a citizen, which is my constitutional right.” It seems that in his job, he has not recognized that there is no distinction between the public and the private. This is quite apart from the fact that his DPI status is referenced at the top of his Facebook page, and, as mentioned earlier, he tagged the Indian High Commissioner in his first post. He clearly erroneously believed he could enter into an exchange with Mr Mahalingam on a tendentious topic outside the parameters of official diplomatic parameters.

Does he seriously believe that he can suggest that the High Commission of India is undermining the coalition government in what he describes as a ‘personal’ post, but which, it should be noted, is on public access to a large number of people, and then hypothetically, say, the following day issue a serious press release on behalf of the Government of Guyana lauding the good relations between this country and India? What should the Indian diplomatic service believe in such circumstances? That Mr Khan is being used to promulgate the secret view of the administration here? Or that he is a loose cannon on the government deck? Either way, it does nothing to recommend the coherence of Guyana government foreign policy, since it is into that arena that Mr Khan chose to make his foray, although it applies to all areas of government operations.

There cannot be two agencies making government policy in this country,  including foreign policy. If the personal opinions of government officers are thrown into the mix, the public would never know what the government’s perspective on anything was, and everything would become a matter for speculation. At the very least there would be no need for Mr Khan’s post as DPI. Diplomatic exchanges, to give one example, are carried on in careful, coded language, and there must be a high degree of consistency in what is said publicly, unless there has been a change of direction by one side or the other, and even that kind of communication is professionally managed. How could two governments ever carry on a ‘conversation’ if every officer involved in that ‘conversation’ was posting on his or her ‘personal’ social media page what they thought about it.

The government was quick to grasp the damage which had been done. First came Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence who asked Mr Khan to remove the post, and described his comments as “distasteful” and “not in keeping with how this Government treats their Guests.”

Then came Minister of State Joseph Harmon who said that the DPI “does not represent the position of the government,” and according to our report yesterday referred to Mr Khan’s post as an aberration rather than a norm. He did not, however, think there was much control which could be applied in such a situation: “People put up things on their personal pages,” he told the media, “and all we can ask is that if you are in government that you exercise a certain amount of restraint in putting out what might be your personal opinion.”

And that is the problem. Facebook and other social media pages are not ‘personal’ in the sense that they are private. They are accessible to a number of people who then spread their contents to a far wider audience. Mr Khan could stand in the National Park or Providence and shout his views at the top of his voice, and they still would not reach anything like as large an audience as he would on Facebook. And Mr Harmon is wrong: of course rules can be devised about what is allowed on your social media page if you are a government officer of a certain standing or in a sensitive post.

Contrary to what Mr Khan appears to think, he has no constitutional right to use what has essentially become a public forum – personal or not ‒ to make his views on government issues public, although he has the right to hold such views genuinely in private. A Director of Public Information should speak in public with only one voice: his public voice.

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