Media freedom

Stabroek News
May 22, 1999

Free media cannot be the handmaiden of any group or interest. Their duty is to report the news as fairly and objectively as they can, without fear or favour, and whether it offends powerful interests or not. If they are not attempting to do that, if they are reporting the news selectively or in a biased manner they are betraying their fundamental calling.

The corollary of this is that those who believe in media freedom have to respect the existence and activities of media who are not beholden to them in any way and may even be perceived to be critical of them. That is the name of the game. They cannot seek to deal only with those perceived to be friendly or neutral and boycott, or even worse attack, media seen as critical or linked to other interests.

Press freedom is indivisible. An atack on any newspaper, radio station or television station or persons working for them is an attack on all the others because what is being attacked is the principle of reporting the news, the very reason for their existence. For this reason the media should stand together on these issues, an attack on any of them threatens their existence as independent professionals as it creates unfortunate precedents. Upholding the principle of freedom of expression is as important as upholding the principle of the rule of law, indeed the two concepts overlap to some extent.

Press freedom is not only threatened by governments, though they are the traditional enemies by virtue of their power and the scope of their activities which the media cover on a regular basis. In Colombia journalists have been attacked and murdered by drug barons, in Algeria by militants opposed to the government. Everywhere the free media are under threat by powerful interests, be they government, business groups, opposition parties or trade unions. Even in democracies, of course, this is part of the tension inherent in an open society, though in democracies the attacks tend to be less brutal. And the threats to free media can come from unexpected quarters, for example, in America some major television networks have been acquired by huge business conglomerates which create implied pressures on the way they handle certain issues that concern these groups.

In the past year there have been several attacks on media personnel and their equipment, mainly from the state media. This is deplorable and unacceptable. It is an attack on the principle of press freedom. Those who tolerate it or condone it or do not speak out against it either have not fully realised what press freedom means or do not believe in it. Silence gives sustenance to the elements involved and encourages further attacks. The state media have a job to do like other media. They should be allowed to do it without interference or hassle. If they are perceived to be partial to the government in their coverage that does not remove the protection they are entitled to as journalists. Indeed other private media are perceived to be even more strongly biased in other directions and no one has suggested that their personnel should be molested.

We condemn the attack on Thursday on GTV personnel and believe that all who believe in media freedom should do so. Moreover, they should explicitly instruct their supporters to be tolerant to all media houses, whether they are seen to be friendly or not. It is fair to say that in recent times the threat to press freedom in Guyana has not come from the government but from other interests.

The free press bear a heavy burden indeed in trying to cover the news fairly and objectively, expecially in difficult and tense times. None discharge it flawlessly. Limitations of time, energy, knowledge and wisdom work against them, as they do in all human endeavours. The least one must insist on however is that in reporting the news and doing their job there should be no malice aforethought or private agendas, and that there should be respect for the professional discipline of journalism which requires them to report fairly and objectively after hearing all sides without kowtowing to powerful or threatening interests.

That is what it is all about in the final analysis, and it is a difficult, demanding and noble task, essential to a free society.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples