By Hon. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo
It sounds like an understatement, but Guyana today does enjoy a free press. Media ownership
is mostly private and far outstrips and outweighs the limited control of state radio and television (NCN) and newspaper (Chronicle). Guyana’s field of media is open and wide. They are robust and vibrant, and enjoy the fullest rights to exist and function unfettered by state censorship, restrictions and politico-financial pressures or demands.
Guyana’s media have the right to self-censor, especially lewd and distasteful content, politics or other kinds of material that their own audiences find objectionable. Generally, private media in Guyana is encouraged to change or pull content, or shift their leaning/slant purely based on the increase or decrease in advertising, or on receipt of information indicating that their support base is diminishing.
These freedoms did not come easily. The media fought for their rights to operate freely without the conditions that used to exist from the 1980’s through to 2015, with the exception of brief spells under the Presidencies of Hugh Desmond Hoyte and Cheddi B. Jagan. Those Journalists and programme producers who are still here could tell a few sordid tales of state manipulation otherwise known as ‘party paramountcy’.
Fast forward to the turn of this Century. The fourth estate was under threat of becoming a political football for the PPP, the party which, when in power, left no illusions of its intention to control and manipulate the media, both state- and privately-owned.
A DETERMINED FRATERNITY
The media, it turned out, was peopled by journalists and media house owners who dug their heels in and refused to be intimidated or dominated, even when they were banned from State House, hollered at, cursed out, called names like weasel and crab, and worst of all, charged and falsely imprisoned.
In the seven years that he led this nation, from 1985 to 1992, President Desmond Hoyte allowed private media to grow. He removed the restrictions that had been imposed on the private press such as denial of access to newsprint and printing equipment, and delays in issuance of import licences.
Dr. Cheddi Jagan (1992-1997) continued this process when he became President. It must be noted that he was a real doctor, not an honorary one. He studied and worked in the USA under extremely hard conditions for his degree in Dental Surgery (DDS). Though he made efforts to restore professional ethics in the state media at least, government’s relationship with the privately-owned media, especially the Stabroek News, was still unfriendly. It was wrong and inexcusable, especially during the Jagdeo stint, to label the private press ‘anti-national’.
Under the Jagdeo presidency, (1999 to 2011) the PPP had an obscene obsession with using the state information apparatus to attack political opponents. Independent newspapers were branded “anti-government” and denied state advertisements. That was a declaration of economic war against the private press. The intention was to starve them of financial resources, strangle them to their knees, and force their compliance. This was clear violation of the Chapultepec Declaration for Freedom of Speech/Expression, to which Guyana was a willing signatory.
In that era too, journalists were punished publicly. One fearless man was expelled and banned from presidential news conferences, and called a carrion crow. Worse still, a popular newspaper columnist was doused with human excrement. Other outspoken critics were hounded out of the country; one was executed mafia-style, and others (including a whole media house) received naked and vulgar threats. Now Prime Minister, Moses Nagamootoo who had by then parted ways with the PPP, was referred to as an “intellectual jackass.”
Like a macabre stage-show, the nation witnessed in horror a ‘buse-down of the US Ambassador during a reception at his home no less, while the PPP disdainfully referred to the diplomatic community as ‘meddlers’. Children did not escape. A young man was arrested by police, accused of ‘flipping the bird’ while Jagdeo was passing by. In the interior, a young Amerindian teacher was beaten up at Aishalton because he dared to disagree with something that was said during a campaign rally.
The acts committed by the previous government against the citizens of Guyana were so past the pale that the nation remained aghast. Some were learning to avoid being knocked sideways by the constant assault on our sensibilities, but we were being pushed towards a precipice.
The incidents that did the most damage were the charges and imprisonment of a few citizens for treason and other ‘crimes against the state’. Before proceeding farther let me say that treason is the most serious capital offence in most countries, and is almost always punishable by death. It is extreme and final if proven.
Ex-GDF officer, Oliver Hinckson, was charged in 2009 for ‘advocating a terrorist act against his country’. Then political activist, Mark Benschop, was slapped with a Treason indictment in 2010 for leading a protest. This was followed with incarceration of a couple, army officer Major Bruce Munroe and his wife Carol. Of course these people were all acquitted in the courts … eventually, and Benschop was reluctantly released after spending much of five years in solitary confinement. These incidents characterised the evolving nature of the state then, and they led to the heartless shooting of three protesters at Linden in 2012.
Guyana had become a (state-sanctioned) criminal State that had to be stopped!
So, today, when we say that the media are free, it should be absorbed with the full weight of international press freedom. This APNU+AFC Coalition has always been determined to remove the hood of contamination from our media, to restore the rights of our Fourth Estate, and relegate political interference to the garbage heap.
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