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Governments have always found themselves in collision with the media. This is largely due to the fact that government by its very nature is about secrecy while media are about exposure, oversight and openness. Here in Guyana, we have had a long history of government’s assault on press freedom. During the PNC’s reign, the media landscape was dominated by the State. The privately owned media houses were quickly nationalized or forced out of existence. The opposition media were confined to small publications such as the Catholic Standard, the PPP’s Mirror and the WPA’s Dayclean and Open Word.
The government then proceeded to enact strict libel legislation to muzzle these publications. There were no television stations and only the government operated radio stations. Prominent journalists such as Rick Mentus, Hubert Williams and Rickey Singh were forced to flee the country and the Catholic Standard’s Father Andrew Morrison was constantly harassed. Catholic Standard’s photographer, Fr Bernard Darke was killed while covering a WPA demonstration. A member of the House of Israel, an ally of the PNC, was convicted for the offence. Ironically. It was the under the NC government that the first license for a private newspaper, Stabroek News.
The PPP came to power in 1992 touting itself as a pro-democracy government. But its record as far as press freedom was concerned was no better that the previous government. If fact, in may regards it was worse. The government was in constant confrontation with the private media. In an unprecedented move, the government withdrew advertisements from the Stabroek News as it declared that the private media was in a conspiracy against the government. When the PPP’s matriarch. Janet Jagan, objected to the withdrawal the then president retorted that she was a private citizen. The president also banned a journalist from attending his press conferences.
The advertisements were steered to the State-owned media houses which functioned more like PPP organs than as a publicly owned media. The opposition was either denied coverage or given unfavorable coverage. Finally, during a spate of widespread violence, five workers at the Kaieteur News were murdered in 2006. Kaieteur News columnist, Freddy Kissoon, was sued for libel by President Jagdeo and he was also attacked by known PPP operatives and doused with feces.
Freedom House’s 2012 report rated the country as “Partly Free” when it comes to press freedom. Part of that report is worth quoting:
“Over the years, the government has employed various tactics—including advertising boycotts—to stifle criticism, but in the run-up to the November 2011 general election, members of the ruling party grew increasingly hostile to sections of the media regarded as favoring the opposition, and cases of censorship were reported. At the beginning of October, Jagdeo ordered a four-month suspension of CNS Channel Six, a privately owned TV station, due to a comment made by an opposition parliamentarian during a programme. After local and international media rights groups condemned the move, which would have forced the station off the air during the election period, Jagdeo announced that the ban would begin in December. Despite the postponement, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers described the ban as “evidence of efforts to stifle free expression.” Following the elections, the Commonwealth Election Observation Mission criticized the media, stating that the code of conduct for political parties and the media had not been respected, and indicated that state-owned television, radio, and print media had shown overt bias toward the government and ruling party. “
During the Coalition government’s stint in government, 2015-2020, there was some improvement in press freedom even if relations between government and the private media deteriorated after the No Confidence Motion. Like the PPP, the government kept a tight rein on the State-owned media to the point of firing two columnists who while supporting the government were critical of its shortcomings. The private media played a pivotal role in heling to bring down the government in 2020.
Upon returning to power in 2020, the PPP resumed its hostility to the media. This time its target has been the Social Media platforms which have gained large followings particularly among opposition supporters. The government has repeatedly charged the hosts of these programs with inciting racism and violence. It went as far as issuing a wanted bulletin for one of the hosts who reside overseas. It was no surprise then that at a government-sponsored symposium this past week, the government signaled its intention to move against these “Social Media Influencers.”
The Guyana Press Association was quick to smell censorship and issued a strong statement to that effect. It fears that in going after these Social Media programs, the freedom of the conventional media would be compromised. It is a fear that is well founded given the history of the PPP’s relations with the media. But while the GPA advocates on behalf of the conventional media it should be careful not to give comfort to the government in its targeting of the Social Media platforms. What is at stake is freedom of expression of all Guyanese.
Stabroek News; editor is reported to have raised strong objections to the government’s intention to eliminate the oversight role of the media by pushing for a partnership between government and the media. We share Mr. Persaud’s view. The role of the media is not nation building—it is to be a watchdog of government. The government’s intended movement in this direction harkens back to the age of the Command Society. Guyana and the world have moved on. Let the Free Press with all its imperfections prevail.