Press freedom, responsibility and creeping duplicity

JOURNALISM is not a profession for the weak. It is selfless, noble and demanding. If the law is a jealous mistress, journalism is a mistress scorned.

Today the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day when we celebrate those who bring us the news, who interrogate those who hold power and uncover truths which may otherwise remain hidden. The pages of this newspaper and the other dailies are certain to be loaded with messages heralding press freedom in this country and news lamenting shortcomings elsewhere.

As noted in the official message from the Government of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana in observance of World Press Freedom Day, 2017, “In Guyana, no longer are journalists and media workers subject to physical and verbal attacks by government officials; journalists are not imprisoned in pursuit of their profession; journalists are not killed or maimed because what they print or broadcast do not meet the approval of political or other forces; media houses do not suffer from government-imposed advertising blackouts, are not targeted or shut down; state media are not used for vulgar propaganda or ethnic and political attacks; media workers are not subject to threats, bullyism, intimidation, victimization or other forms of abuses.”

Press freedom in Guyana today is at an all-time high. Never before has the press in Guyana been freer or with greater latitude to operate. No coalition government official has plummeted to the depths of branding media workers ‘vultures and carrion crows,’ nor has this government denied advertisements to any newspaper nor has it shut down any television station as, we know, had been the case under the previous administration. No journalist has been bused out or cussed down as was a regular occurrence not so long ago. Journalists in Guyana function with virtual impunity.

The environment is practically unrestricted and this imposes on the media itself the need to act with responsibility. For the most part, the gatekeepers of the media in Guyana have done so and understand their role in the daily efforts to inform, educate and entertain. There have been some troubling signs emerging however. And these need to be red-flagged by the fraternity itself and addressed frontally in an effort to ensure that there is no internal and self-inflicted compromises in, and injuries to, the profession.

While it may not yet have reached epidemic proportions, there is a creeping mentality which, if unchecked, is likely to cause harm and disruption and can lead to the profession being accused of diminishing integrity and stature. Such a scenario ought to be avoided at all cost.

The ugly reality is that there is a small band of persons who have infiltrated the media and who are themselves rather guilty of double standards. There are persons, some of whom hold high office within media organisations and associations, and who are known to publicly mount podiums and keyboards and lament on a fictional or exaggerated basis, matters which they then attempt to categorise as ‘government interference.’ What is disturbing, is behind closed doors and away from the lights, cameras and microphones these very high-profile media people are busy relentlessly lobbying government officials to actively ‘interfere’ in the state media business in their interests. This is an undeniable fact of which I have personal experience of being lobbied by some of these media personnel.

Whether it is to exert pressure and influence to provide them with employment, protect them from sanction and reprimand as a result of misconduct, improve their remuneration, identified for trips or advance their upward mobility within the organisation, the duplicity exists in several forms in the Guyanese media landscape.

This band of media folk have no apparent reservation or difficulty with government interference, once it is in their interest. They are an unfortunate discredit to the media in which they operate. Wither press freedom, regardless of what they are known to declare publicly on this tenet of our society. It is a downright dangerous duplicity which they seem most comfortable practising.

Interference is interference. Interference does not come in shades or degrees. It is either is the case or it is not. Journalists cannot be comfortable with interference which perks up their salaries, but uncomfortable with interference which may have a negative consequence for them personally. When the journalists themselves lobby government officials to interfere, it leads to confusion and the risk of compromise.

Principle 6 of the Declaration of Chapultepec is clear, “The media and journalists should neither be discriminated against nor favoured because of what they write or say.”

Emphasis is directed at the “nor favoured.” It would appear as though some persons in the media in Guyana are unperturbed if interference “favours” their interests, even if it means not being in the interests of their own colleagues. I am aware of incidents of government officials who have been lobbied to exert influence for journalists to be hired and fired, promoted and demoted and have favours granted and denied.

There is no value to naming and shaming, but it needs to be brought out from the dark that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or, in this case, the county of Demerara (since this is where the majority of Guyanese media are based).
Persons of weak moral conviction and integrity have crept in and are creeping up. There are warts and slippages, which, if not addressed, will fester and become problematic and compromise Guyana’s status as a state in which the freedom of the press is at an all-time high and still on an upward trajectory. It is for the media seniors who command respect and who remain men and women of integrity to uncover these truths and call in those who falter and take action as they best deem fit.

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