Responsibility of the Press
There is no question that this newspaper has earned the ire of some in the administration – both for its editorial position and its reporting. We are not surprised.
Anyone familiar with the history of democracy would know that journalism played a pivotal role in the struggle of the ordinary people against the absolutist monarchies that were the norm in the 19th century. Since that time, the press in every democracy has guarded its role as the watchdog of the interests of the people against the ever-present danger of abuse of power by the “Leviathan”. We are following an honourable tradition.
Even in the US and Britain, bastions of liberal democracy, there has always been a tension between the government and the press – with the former persistently accusing the latter of overstepping its bounds.
Bill Moyers, regarded as one of the most credible figures in American journalism and one who served in the White House during the Vietnam War, once said: “In the White House we circled the wagons, grew intolerant of news that didn’t comfort us and, if we could have, we would have declared illegal the sting of the bee.” Here in Guyana, many do not appreciate that the people’s right to know can be trumped by very few imperatives in a functioning democracy. Even a US President was forced to demit his office because of the press’ fidelity to its cause.
As Moyers continued, “The First Amendment (the right to freedom of speech) is the first for a reason. It’s needed to keep our leaders honest and to arm the powerless with the information they need to protect themselves against the tyranny of the powerful, whether that tyranny is political or commercial.”
In Guyana, our Constitution also declared that we have freedom of speech and we would indeed be derelict in our duty if we did not report the facts as we discern them rather than bend them to the agenda of the government of the day.
We know that in the grand flow of history of nations, Guyana is a comparatively young democracy. For most of our history we had a commercial press that mirrored the positions of the colonial power and denied the legitimate right of the citizenry to become aware of the facts that created the chains of their bondage.
However, from the abolition of slavery there were brave attempts at creating a free press that would lift the scales from the eyes of the masses. We position ourselves firmly in the latter camp.
As we have pointed out on so many previous occasions, the government has nothing to fear from the truth if it or any of its agencies are not covering up that truth. The Johnson administration saw the press as the “enemy” because they wanted to hide the truth that the war in Vietnam was not going well and in fact was inexorably being lost.
The press exposed the truth; the administration pilloried them as ‘aiding and abetting the enemy” but they stuck to their guns and eventually their perspective was vindicated. America gained in the end. Democracy cannot be built or sustained on lies from a government that is supposed to be governing on behalf of “the people”.
In a democracy, the “consent of the governed” must be an informed consent and it is the task of the press to present the facts that will inform the citizenry – especially as it relates to the activities of the state to which they have conferred so much power.
In the criticisms directed at this newspaper by representatives of the government and its partisans, we detect a level of hubris that belies the social contract that undergirds all democratic states, which declares those representatives to be “servants of the people”.
It is now clichéd to point out that unless we heed the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat it. And invariably, the farce that is characteristic of the second incarnation is worse than even the tragedy that preceded it.