Guyana's press corps and its problems

By David A. Granger
Stabroek News
December 3, 2000


Debra Kissoon was an employee of the State-owned Guyana Broadcasting Corporation when, at a press conference on 16 May 1997, she asked then Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo to clarify reports that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was looking into money laundering at his ministry. For her imprudence, she was suspended for one month from June 9 to give her the opportunity "... to reflect on the ethics of good journalism."

Apart from a protest from the Guyana Press Association (GPA) and a few pickets from the privately-owned Stabroek News and Evening News, little was done to rescue Kissoon from the wrath of her employers. Her plight was a true reflection of the predicament of the press corps in Guyana these days. On the one hand, journalists can expect precious little respect from the State in view of their inadequacy of their professional education. On the other hand, journalists can expect precious little professional support and solidarity from their representative body such as the GPA.

In many ways, the Guyanese journalist at the start of the 21st century is very much like the newspaper pioneers of the 19th century. Journalism is still, essentially, a personal vocation without strong professional standards, solidarity or social responsibility.

A century ago, Guyanese newspapers were the products of the efforts of individuals. Each publisher, most probably, was also proprietor, reporter, editor and printer. When he was bankrupted or died, the newspaper invariably disappeared until another intrepid entrepreneur took up the challenge. That was the age of 'personal journalism', characterised equally by the contention of ideologies as by the clash of idiosyncrasies.

The pioneers
With the introduction of universal primary education in 1876, and the opening of a few secondary schools in the early 20th century, literacy spread among non-European Guyanese. Journalism became a much more exciting and attractive career option than preaching or teaching, the main avenues of endeavour open to literate locals. And it also served as a stepping stone to more socially acceptable employment in the colonial civil service. By the mid-1940s, a corps of underpaid, overworked but untrained local reporters toiled for the 'big three' privately-owned dailies - Daily Argosy, Daily Chronicle and Guiana Graphic.

Since there were no regular provincial papers, the press was concentrated in Georgetown, Guyana's capital which with a population of about 75,000 in the mid-1940s, had a small market. The business community which could provide commercial support through advertisements was also relatively small and underdeveloped. Competition among the three papers for readers and advertisers was intense. And, since there were many more job-seekers than jobs at the few newspapers, wages were low, the work was hard and careers insecure.

The typical newspaper office of the mid-1940s was a five-tiered hierarchy. At the fifth level were the much maligned, hireling and 'penny-a-line', freelance writers who generally lacked a formal secondary academic education. Many of these served a bitter apprenticeship as office-boys and copy-boys, running errands and carrying drafts and proofs around the newsrooms before graduating to the fourth tier as cub or junior reporters.

At this stage, these journeymen reporters would be made to cover the accidents, crime, fire and sports beats for a few years. By that time, and having acquired the rudiments of shorthand and typewriting, they would be elevated to the third tier where they would cover sessions of the Supreme Court, Legislative Council, Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council.

The brightest would then advance to the second tier of Úlite political reporters, interacting with decision-makers in the trade unions, political parties and the Civil Service.

At the top tier, the masters would be 'taken off the streets' and appointed sub-editors to improve and embellish the work of their subordinates. At the apex of the system, European proprietors or directors crafted the policies by which the underlings worked.

The life of the Guyanese reporter 50 years ago was hard. The reporter, typically, was a young, single, city-dwelling male whose formal education ceased at the secondary level. Starting his career in journalism at the early age of 17 years, he learnt, thereafter, by trial and error.

He earned BWI$40 a month, which could hardly pay the rent and buy his food, clothes and other needs. It was a necessity for him to own a bicycle which he bought for $60, but it took him several years of saving to buy his first typewriter. He had to wear a suit, clean shirt and a tie to be admitted to major official events and public offices.

He routinely worked six ten-hour days a week and was entitled to one week's vacation leave a year. His editor would usually demand up to 10 stories a day from him; occasionally, he was called upon to cover sport and social events on the weekends in addition to his weekday beats. His beat confined him to the City and he rarely ventured into the countryside to report events there unless there was a major catastrophe such as a flood.

He could be fined $1.00 for making any factual error in a story and could be dismissed for infractions such as unpunctuality or insubordination to his superiors. He never really retired since he was not eligible to receive pension; he was obliged to go on working, perhaps, as a free-lance writer, proof-reader, or stringer for a foreign news agency, as long as he was physically capable. There was no written Code of Ethics, but a silent code there was, that was learnt by observation and imitation. Colonial Guyanese society was dominated by a European Úlite which also owned the big newspapers. Reporting was meant to provide information and entertainment only for that Úlite and little attention was paid to the majority of non-Europeans, except in a negative sense, if there was a strike or a serious crime.

Professionalism
In such conditions, journalism in Guyana in those days could not have been regarded as a profession, side by side with accounting, architecture, engineering, law or medicine, for example. A useful criterion, employed by the United States National Labour Relations Act, defines a professional employee as one engaged in work which was:

(i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgement in its performance; (iii) of such character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardised in relation to a given period of time; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialised intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes...

It is arguable that, in those days, journalism in Guyana could be regarded as intellectually demanding and required the exercise of discretion and judgement. It would have been unthinkable, however, to attempt to enforce a strict code of ethics and licence journalists to practise in the way that architects or attorneys must be licensed.

Further, only a general primary or secondary academic education was required for persons to become journalists in Guyana and few have completed "a prolonged course of specialised intellectual instruction" at university level. Since 1975, the highest form of instruction available in Guyana has been the undergraduate Diploma of Public Communication and, since 1987, the Bachelor's degree, both of which made some headway in attaining the lofty standards required to qualify in the traditional professions. Professional training of journalists is now done mainly at the University of Guyana's Centre of Communication Studies but such training has been impaired by inadequate faculty and insufficient resources. The questions may still be asked not only whether journalism is a profession but whether, in Guyana, journalists enjoy sufficient independence and display the expertise, social responsibility and corporate spirit to justify their being called professional. In any event, journalists emerge from society, and it is to society that we must look in order to understand their conduct.

The philosophy
Guyanese reporters received no formal training in journalism before the Diploma in Public Communication (DPC) course was started at the University or a few lucky persons received scholarships to study in the Caribbean, India, UK, USSR or the USA. There were ad hoc training seminars organised by the UK's British Council or US's Information Services, but these focused on basic reporting skills and editorial techniques rather than mid- or high-level professional development.

The first serious attempt to provide local professional education for journalists came from the State and sought, not surprisingly, to promote a State-centred press policy.

The Draft Second Development Plan, 1972-1976, was designed to make the new Guyanese Republic a self-reliant socialist state. At the time of the promulgation of that Plan, it was the Government's intention to establish a School of Journalism or a School of Mass Communication, the objectives of which were to meet the apparent need for training journalists already working in the media and for equipping new entrants as development communicators to promote the proposed Development Plan. As a result, the Ministry of Information and Culture provided financial support for the University of Guyana to conduct a 12-month DPC Programme starting from October 1975. The objectives of the Programme were:

(a) to provide development workers and planners, extension personnel, information and media practitioners, community workers and all other categories of change-agents with a broad education aimed at improving their ability to understand and interpret social issues and the value of human communication in the development process; and, (b) to give participants specialised training in the techniques of interpersonal communication and the media, with particular emphasis on the graduates' role in Development Support Communication (DSC), against the background of the National Philosophy of Socialism and Co-operativism.

As expected, students for the programme had to be nominated by the Ministry of Information and be approved by a Public Service Ministry (PSM) selection committee which included nominees from the University and Ministry of Information. This process and policy had the effect of excluding candidates from the private media many of whom, by the mid-1970s, were presumed to have adopted adversarial attitudes to the State and, most certainly, would have been unwelcome.

The Programme
The Programme comprised three parts: the first containing three courses in the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts; the second containing courses in professional communication; and the third, containing compulsory practical work, usually, in a State media organisation. This attempt at professional training was soon beset by several difficulties.

First of all, it was impossible to attract suitable specialist staff to conduct the training which had been envisaged and also to identify external examiners for courses in the new development journalism courses which were being considered.

Secondly, training and administrative facilities, such as offices, stores, classrooms, laboratories and equipment were inadequate for this programme at the University Campus. Soon after the programme was launched, the country's economy plunged into a deep recession and, as education was free and no fees were collected, there was never enough money to provide for the material needs of the Centre.

Thirdly, there were insufficient texts and literature to support teaching in the proposed form of development journalism. Development Support Communication (DSC) was all the rage in the Third World but although its objectives were attractive to centrally-planned economies, there were grave doubts about its efficacy and insufficient research and textbooks to support it.

Fourthly, and, perhaps, most seriously, many of the students displayed attitudes which seemed incompatible with high academic standards by not taking their studies seriously and misappropriating equipment while at the University. Moreover, on their return to their places of work, some came into conflict with their seniors who may not have had the opportunity to attend formal training at all. In turn, the seniors regarded the new graduates indisciplined and disruptive.

Most of the entrants to the Programme were mature journalists and may have been admitted on the basis of their experience in the media rather than educational attainment. Some sought to exploit the low entrance requirement only to gain access to areas of academic studies, later, outside of journalism. It was not surprising that, after the first four years of this Programme, only 32 of the 50 graduates had returned to employment in public communications; the remainder had fled the field. This could be seen from the table below:

This could be seen from the table below:

Distribution of graduates of the DPC, 1975-1979

Returned to jobs in public communication
Broken contract with Sponsoring Organisation
Opted out of public communication
Pursuing studies out of public communication
Migrated out of Guyana
Total
32
4
4
5
5
50

Source: Victor Forsythe, Patterns and Problems of Communication Training in a Developing Country: Guyana

The flight from the State media and the DPC has continued ever since despite attempts to solve these problems. In 1980, the Programme was extended from one to two academic years, increasing the emphasis on DSC theory and practice. In October 1997, a four-year degree programme was added to give diplomats the opportunity to upgrade their qualification. Little success was achieved, however, in providing the additional personnel and improved resources, or in correcting the students' attitudes, which had plagued the programme from the start in 1975. The absence of positive professional attitudes may be attributed to the decline in the role and status of the professional body which sought to provide some solidarity to journalists in the pre-Independence period.

Patronage
The British Guiana Press Association (later the Guyana Press Association - GPA) was formed in 1944 by Clarence Kirton, Carl Blackman, Connie Theobald, Roland Garnet, Steve Bobb-Semple, A. Windsor, Ivan Hughes, Charles Park, Richard de Corum, Percy Kennedy and Jerry Daniels who were journalists from the Daily Argosy newspaper. Their main motive was to improve the wretched conditions under which they worked.

Fifty-six years ago, the idea of organising was not well received by some of the senior journalists who, despite their poor pay and hard work, saw themselves as a professional Úlite rather than working-class militants. Meetings were held at the Progressive High School building in Brickdam in an effort to define the proposed association's objectives. The Commissioner of Labour was even invited to speak with the journalists about the implications of representation.

Matters finally got moving after a reception organised by Clarence Kirton at the Town Hall in Georgetown. Hilton Harewood, Head of the Government's Bureau of Publicity and Information (BPI), who had met with Kirton and other journalists, along with Oscar Wight (Manager of the Daily Argosy), encouraged the group to proceed with its plans. Later, strangely, Wight was named first 'Patron' of the Association.

It was finally decided that three newspapers, the Argosy, Chronicle and Graphic, would be approached to donate a monthly sum of $40 each to run the Association, a grim portent captured by Martin Carter's words, written much later:

"But a mouth is always muzzledby the food it eats to live." Harewood offered his office at Robb and Hincks' Streets for the group to use temporarily until it found one of its own. Much later, the head office moved to premises in Savage Street and, then, Bentinck Street, in Georgetown. The BGPA was essentially a social club, not a professional organisation or a trade union. Its rented rooms at Bentinck Street provided a lounge, library and office and the paid staff of barman, caretaker and cleaner ensured a reasonable service to reporters. That was all.

At its height, the Association never had more than 100 members and never became actively involved in the training of journalists, although it advocated such training. As a pressure-group, it was only moderately successful in the sense that it brought a grudging respect for journalists from the wider class-conscious community. By relying heavily on the patronage of the newspaper proprietors, the BGPA may have lost its claim to independence before getting started.

The main reason for the apparent incapacity of the Association, apart from being tainted by the patronage of the proprietors, was the outlook and perceptions of the journalists themselves. Some saw themselves, oddly, as a social Úlite and disdained the blue-collared printers. According to one commentator, the Association existed for the purpose of:

"maintaining a social atmosphere in which the senior editorial workers can meet with juniors for the professional benefit of all - and to make representations on matters affecting accommodation of pressmen and the obtaining of information for professional purposes."

These preoccupations, reportedly, bore fruit in such trivial matters as obtaining a hatstand for pressmen in the Legislative Council and claiming the right to use the great entrance at receptions at Government House (the Governor's residence).

Politics
But, there were others who were seriously concerned with wages and working conditions. A committee, comprising Carl Blackman, William Carto, R.B. Harewood, Henry Josiah, Frank Robinson, Montague Smith and Eleazer Watson was set up to look into the question of transforming the Association from a social club into a trade union. The militants carried the day and the British Guiana Union of Journalists (BGUJ) was registered (No. 79) on 28 September 1953 with William Carto, a political reporter, as its first president.

But 1953 was an abnormal year for Guyana. The BGUJ soon became embroiled in ideological conflicts and Cold War politics which it seemed not to have anticipated. The Union hastened to seek affiliation with the pro-USA International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). But, after the PPP was expelled from office in October 1953 by the British, the Guyanese labour movement split, with the pro-USSR unions shifting towards the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). The BGUJ were branded as 'traitors', by the left-wing unions for being on the wrong side of the fence in their affiliation with ICFTU.

During the early months of its brief existence of less than two years, the BGUJ did set the scene for serious negotiations with the management of newspapers. But, its momentum was slowed by the failure to bring about a merger with the blue-collar Printers' Industrial Union (PIU) and the loss of its leaders through the appointment of its President (Carto) and Secretary (Josiah) to Civil Service jobs in the Government Information Service (GIS). On 22 July 1955, the comatose BGUJ was struck off the register of active trade unions.

After Independence in 1966, the Association was re-named the Guyana Press Association (GPA).

With the passage of time, training programmes were started and the Association opened contacts with international organisations such as the pro-Soviet International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ) based in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under the socialist thrust of the People's National Congress (PNC) Administration and the ideological influence of the People's Progressive Party. Under this new dispensation, however, the two main independent newspapers - Daily Chronicle and Guyana Graphic - fell under the control of the socialist-oriented Government. The Daily Argosy had already ceased publication and its successor, the Evening Post, collapsed. With the exception of the Catholic Standard, the Mirror and a few minor political newspapers and newsletters, the State virtually controlled the press. The Association, as a result, started to tread a very careful line in its policy, lest it be accused of being anti-Government. A serious blow to the Association came with the loss of its rented lounge. With no central meeting place, the social momentum which had kept it going during its first 20 years was lost. During the next 20 years, The Press Association, made up mainly of over-cautious state employees, went into decline. At first, it may not have been realised that the Association, though little more than a club, was an important factor in the socialisation of young journalists into a career with few written rules. It was, in reality, a social school-house and its loss left new recruits untutored in the tenets of journalism. The result would gradually become apparent over the next 20 years of the Association's troubled life.

Prospects The fact that newspapers have been published continuously for over 200 years in Guyana may suggest that editors, publishers, and reporters, would have benefited from the accumulated wealth of experience and expertise, developed a sense of social responsibility, established a degree of autonomy and, in other words, moved towards becoming an independent profession.

Although professional associations such as the British Guiana Press Association (BGPA), British Guiana Union of Journalists, and the Union of Guyanese Journalists (UGJ), the Independent Media Association of Guyana (IMAG), and the Association of Guyanese Environmental Media (AGEM) were founded, and there has been some form of professional training, their efficacy has been vitiated by doctrinal disputes, dogma and not least, social prejudice.

But schism and ideology are not the most serious impediments to the evolution of journalism as a profession. There are deeper philosophical and social issues. The failure of journalists to establish a viable trade union led them into the arms of the Clerical and Commercial Workers' Union (CCWU). But, as that Union represented a wide variety of urban employees, journalists never enjoyed the professional solidarity or purposefulness which may have come from a specialised association.

The consequence of all this, especially within the State-owned press, was that journalists saw themselves, and came to be seen, as faceless, semi-skilled salaried civil servants, displaying little initiative or investigative ardour and producing the type of news least likely to annoy their employers in the Government.

As a group, they were unlikely to be inspired or guided by editors and managers steeped in the professional culture of journalism and a higher premium was placed on experience rather than education. Under both private and State ownership of the press, membership of militant trade unions was discountenanced and, although formal tertiary education was started, this has not progressed to post-graduate studies.

The implications of these developments are that journalists, as a group, did not develop the self-confidence and independence which come from a high level of specialised knowledge and the sympathetic surveillance of trained seniors and peers. As a result, they remained as mere employees of private or public companies which did not encourage them to leap from the merely clerical to a professional outlook.

In the final analysis, what can journalists like Debra Kissoon expect from the State, society and their professional association? The decision last October to resuscitate the GPA, which has been dormant since its last AGM in August 1995, should serve as an opportunity to launch the Association onto a professional path.

The essential problems - journalistic ethics, progressive education, social responsibility and professional solidarity - which have been avoided for decades, should now become the main purpose of the reformed Association as it seeks to lead the press corps into the new millennium.


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