April 7, 1999
It was depressing to read that Evening News may close by the end of June due to financial difficulties. Mr Tony Vieira, the proprietor of Vieira Communications Television (Channel 28) which produces Evening News has been a pioneer in television broadcasting in Guyana and this news programme has developed over the last few years.
Mr Vieira claims that people were told not to advertise with his channel because it was politically hostile to the government. He said they were pressurised to place their ads with the state owned television station. As a result, his advertising income has fallen dramatically and he can't afford to produce the news programme.
Critics contend that the Evening News is continually critical of the government and that its news reporting is biased. They also say that people are free to place their ads where they want. But even though Mr Vieira tends to argue his case in an unduly florid style which can put some people off who might otherwise be sympathetic we believe he has a point and it springs indirectly from state ownership of part of the media. This is how it works.
The state media invariably slant the news in favour of the government of the day. The professionals running these media would prefer not to do this but they have no choice. The result of this is to lead some other media to react against this and to take the other side, so to speak. Mr Vieira has in fact said on one occasion when reacting to criticism that if the Evening News is slanted in favour of the opposition then it is the counterpart of the GTV news which he said was slanted in favour of the government. The effect of this is to politicise the news on both sides, to affect professionalism and objective coverage.
That is not to say that privately owned media are perfectly fair and do not have biases of their own. Of course they do, indeed some are politically partial, though on the whole not as partisan as the state media which by their very structure are aligned to the party in power, thus giving a political taint to media ownership. The news process on all sides thus becomes more politically contaminated than it should be.
There is another side effect which is directly relevant to Mr Vieira's plight. It is human nature for businessmen to want to be seen to be `doing the right thing'. Businesses often depend on government for contracts or licences or approvals of one kind or another. Advertising in the state media is seen to be a plus for this reason whereas advertising with a station perceived to be critical of government is perceived as being potentially harmful. Thus, even though Evening News may have a bigger audience than a competitor commercial factors which would normally prevail in the placement of ads may be overwhelmed by political considerations.
The net result is to make the media vulnerable to political pressure, which is not conducive to balanced and objective reporting. Ideally, therefore, the state should not own media or if it does those who run such media should be protected by law from political interference.
Advertisers are entitled to choose their media. But this should be done primarily on the basis of commercial considerations. Circulation and the quality of the media product (and thus the audience it reaches) would be seen as the key factors by advertising agencies in most democratic countries. If a station or a newspaper is blatantly unfair and biased and makes no effort to comply with professional standards an advertiser may also choose not to patronise it for that reason. If, however, it adopts professional standards but is critical of the government from time to time an advertiser or a government which penalises it for that reason is effectively undermining the free press.
The advertisments of ministries and state agencies should also not be placed in a discriminatory manner. As Clause 7 of the Declaration of Chapultepec puts it: "Tariff and exchange policies, licences for the importation of paper or news-gathering equipment, the assigning of radio and television frequencies and the granting or withdrawal of government advertising may not be used to reward or punish the media or individual journalists". Government has not yet signed this hemispheric free press declaration though Mr Earl Bousquet had reported that President Cheddi Jagan had agreed to do so in his lifetime.
Several of the ten principles of that declaration make it clear that the preservation of freedom of expression in an open society depends on a number of underlying factors that allow free media to operate fearlessly without their existence being threatened. The corresponding duty to observe professional standards is recognised in Clause 9 which states: "The credibility of the press is linked to its commitment to truth, to the pursuit of accuracy, fairness and objectivity and to the clear distinction between news and advertising. The attainment of these goals and the respect for ethical and professional values may not be imposed. These are the exclusive responsibility of journalists and the media. In a free society, it is public opinion that rewards or punishes."