Media access to the President

Despite assurances, President Granger is yet to convene a press conference for the local media corps and to begin to hold them on a regular basis. His continued reticence can only be seen as disrespectful of the media and an unwillingness to submit himself to public scrutiny on a host of topical issues. 

Minister of State Harmon and the Ministry of the Presidency (MotP) seem to believe that because post-Cabinet press conferences are held on a nearly weekly basis and because the President answers questions whenever he is buttonholed  that that is sufficient. It is quite unacceptable. 

On July 11th in response to a July 9th editorial in this newspaper on the absence of presidential press conferences, the MoTP said  “The Ministry takes this opportunity to remind Stabroek News of the weekly Post Cabinet briefings, which are held to update the media and by extension, members of the public on deliberations and decisions of Cabinet by the Minister of State, Mr. Joseph Harmon, who is the chief spokesperson for the Government. This does not take into account the extensive speeches and publications produced by the President and the Ministry of the Presidency.

“The David Granger led administration since its assumption to office has been nothing but transparent and accountable to the citizens and in so doing, has empowered the Ministers of Government to speak on their respective portfolios unabated.

“What is important to question is the motive of such an editorial. The Stabroek News, which champions itself as a balanced and fair newspaper deliberately ignores the numerous avenues through which information on the Government’s business are available, among them being the Department of Public Information (DPI) and the Public Information and Press Services of the Ministry of the Presidency which provide content on a daily basis.     

“The Head of State also remains open to requests for interviews in this regard”.  

The points raised in this statement by the MotP are immaterial and require a response. When one offers oneself for election to the highest office in the land and accedes to it, there falls upon that person the responsibility to kindle regular interaction with the media in all of its forms so that that the people can be kept aware of what is transpiring and the President’s rationale for the various decisions made. The people want to see how their leader reacts to being put on the spot in relation to current topics that require an instant response be it the looming teachers strike, the visit of the US congressional delegation or the spate of domestic violence. The people also want to see how their leader holds up to intense questioning over an hour or more on maybe 10 or 12 topics at one go. How in touch is the leader with the matters before him, what leadership he brings to the table and the tone of his response. Neither the public nor the media has been able to discern these qualities. The President has convened only two press conferences in more than three years and seems more content to greet nurses at the Baridi Benab or to attend a church service for the city – purely ceremonial events – rather than face the media and by extension the public.

It may be the case that President Granger’s constituency cares little about him reporting to them. It is however more than likely that the opposition’s constituency would want to see him being questioned and considering he is the President of all the people he also has an obligation to them. The President is fully aware of the vital role the media plays in a society such as this. He tapped this to the hilt when he was opposition leader and will no doubt seek to do so again in his re-election campaign. He should therefore cease his disregard of the media’s task in holding him and his government accountable. 

Post-Cabinet press briefings are excellent in relation to disclosing decisions arrived at, however, what is usually absent is the rationale for these and this can only magisterially come from the President which Minister Harmon is not.

Speeches and publications produced by the President and the Ministry of the Presidency do not suffice for the purpose of holding the government accountable and are usually turgid prose with little news value.  The MotP statement also contended that the President was available for interviews. This is a cumbersome and bureaucratic option which does not give the live access that the media requires particularly with the 24-hour news cycle.

MotP also cited the information roles of the Department of Public Information (DPI) and the Public Information and Press Services of the Ministry of the Presidency.  Here again, these are no substitutes for access to the President. They are at best rose-tinted filters for the Presidency. Since they have been mentioned by the MotP this is perhaps the juncture for a critique of these varied information arms. There is a growing view that there is wasteful expenditure – possibly in anticipation of oil money – across the government and in a variety of ways. The government has MotP providing information on its ministers, DPI for all government agencies and ministries and a number of ministries have their own information arms with multiple officers. There is duplication and a veritable waste of scarce resources. The quality of the output also varies tremendously. The best copy comes from MotP and the purpose of DPI remains in question. It produces reports of variable quality and inevitably of the propagandist type; always seeking to score points for the government. It is a campaign vehicle for the government. The quality of public relations work from some of the ministries is poor. Cost savings and a restructuring of the information functions should be on the government’s agenda.

It remains the case that there is no substitute for the President making himself available to the press on a regular basis – at least once per month – in addition to being available at public fora that he attends. The public has a right to be able to evaluate regularly the performance, capacity and readiness of their President.

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