May 3, 2001
Today is World Press Freedom Day. Every year on this day around the world media recall the fundamental principles of press freedom and remind their readers that the fight for freedom of expression is ongoing and that in many countries publications are being censored, fined, suspended or closed down and journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. There have been many martyrs in the cause.
Free media have to be vigilant to protect their constitutional right to publish and broadcast without fear or favour. Threats to press freedom come from governments, opposition political parties, commercial interests and even criminal interests like drug barons. The law of libel is also a problem the media have to face that can inhibit robust criticism of public figures. The Caribbean media had proposed some amendments to the regional attorneys general in Trinidad a few years ago but nothing has been done.
In Guyana, this government has a record of respecting press freedom, the only major blot on its record has been the maintaining of a radio monopoly.
It is a good day to remember also, however, the responsibilities of the media to be professional and unbiased in their coverage of events. In some parts of the world media have been used to propagate extremist and racist views and even to instigate genocide. It is a sobering thought that illustrates the fact that press freedom is not an unmixed blessing and that if not accompanied by a strong sense of responsibility it can do untold damage. In Guyana, despite the existence of a media code drafted by the media to set out guidelines for coverage of events leading up to and including the recent elections, we have had the experience of talk show hosts deliberately inciting racial hatred, in one case actually advocating racist sentiments and going dangerously close to openly promoting racial hostility. It was a shocking experience that also included contemptuous attacks on judges, grossly libelous remarks about public figures and a generally complete breakdown of any respect for traditional principles of professional journalism.
Broadcasting legislation is long overdue to bring some order into the chaos that has prevailed on television. A loose cannon in a broadcasting studio can be as dangerous as a machine gun on the streets. Some structure and order is clearly needed and it is good to note that broadcasting legislation will be on the agenda of one of the committees agreed to by President Bharrat Jagdeo and Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte in their dialogue.
The profession also needs to take steps to set its own house in order. The Guyana Press Association has virtually ignored the talk show phenomenon and has been largely inactive at a time when standards in parts of the media were openly condemned by Caribbean media monitors. The media as a whole cannot hope to gain respect or credibility until there is a vibrant body with strong leadership that is prepared to speak out forthrightly on media abuses of one kind or another, as well as on issues that affect the media.
Free media are an essential part of a democratic society. But they must take their responsibilities seriously if they are to play their role properly.