Press freedom and openness

Stabroek News
July 10, 2000

Whenever freedom of the press in a country is assessed the primary factor in analysing its extent is the stance of the state and its regulatory arms. This is quite understandable as the state can have the most debilitating impact on the exercise of press freedom and usually is the greatest danger to it. It can ostensibly curtail licences to operate, unilaterally close down operations, choke off crucial imports, attack the revenue bases of companies and harry them through a variety of means.

Thankfully, the Guyanese media do not operate under any such shackle and press freedom has blossomed over the last decade or so. This government, as we have said before, has a good record in this area and has shown sensitivity to the issues at stake across the entire sector as its recent ground-breaking encounter with the broadcast industry has shown.

The rubric, freedom of the press, also implies that practitioners should have reasonable access to the information that is needed to enlighten the public and to enable it to make informed choices and decisions on every conceivable issue. It is in this area that local practitioners would welcome a crack in the steely resolve to keep information, which would normally be a matter of public record - within the domain of a privileged few.

Here again the State is usually suspect as it controls the levers of many important functions that impact significantly on the day-to-day existence of citizens. In this regard the government can surely improve on openness but it is not alone. Ferreting out the most mundane bits of information from government functionaries and public servants is equally matched by reticence and complete unwillingness in the private sector and every other part of civil society.

It is a product of two phenomena. First, there is a genuine reluctance or inability by important decision-makers to appreciate the role the media has to play in an open society. This stems, in part, from the many years of iron-fisted control in the 70s and 80s during which the industry could not flourish and its real role as a watchdog was relegated to one of merely surviving and fighting a limited agenda. This is slowly changing.

Second, there is an almost reflexive aversion to responding to media queries or approaches because of the unfounded fear that the sole aim of these is to embarrass or damage. There is also the misguided view that silence will prevent a possibly damaging story from ever being told or released into the public domain. This is an equally uninformed platform to stand on. Stories will be told anyway. Those who decide to be close mouthed are more often than not losing the opportunity to tell their side of it and to ensure the fairest possible story is told.

There is also a classic hypocrisy to it that says a lot about human nature. A private sector company or NGO will readily invite the media many times over to the opening of its latest outlet, honouring of long-service employees or to a launching of a promotion but the minute the media have a query about an issue with a possible negative repercussion, this same company or NGO and its previously accessible officials become invisible and melt away until they think it is safe to emerge again.

There has to be an equalising of the relationship not only between the government and the media but also between the media and other sectors of society who believe that they define the parameters of the engagement. The media's role in being an alert watchdog is irreplaceable and this is what must be recognised. Of course, it will have its share of ups and downs, mistakes will be made, the negatives will proliferate over the uplifting and sometimes it is insensitive and downright unprofessional. But this cannot detract from the essence of its function.

Not being open can be just as delimiting as imposing more traditional curbs on press freedom and a society cannot be truly transparent and accountable unless openness is practised.

On the government's part, a Freedom of Information Act, a corresponding willingness of its designated officials to speak and a honing of the public relations machinery is a prerequisite. The rest of society also has soul searching to do on appreciating the media's role and finding its own way of opening up to it.

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