Nothing to fear
…President assures media at signing of free press declaration
Guyana Chronicle
May 25, 2002

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“… we cannot, in a multi-ethnic country like ours,… tolerate expressions that are clearly unconstitutional, against our laws and try to divide our people” - President Bharrat Jagdeo

PRESIDENT Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday joined a list of some 26 Heads of State who have appended their signatures to the Declaration of Chapultepec, which is “based on the essential precept that no law nor act of Government may limit freedom of expression or of the press, whatever the medium of communication”.

The Declaration has been signed by the principal Heads of State of the countries of the Western Hemisphere and it represents a commitment to the principle that a free press is necessary in order for societies to resolve their conflicts, promote well being and protect their freedom.

“It is precisely because of our historical experience that you would appreciate the added importance of today’s endorsement of the Declaration of Chapultepec,” President Jagdeo declared at the simple, short, but very significant signing ceremony at State House in Georgetown.

“Not only does it officially signal our strongest commitment to the principles contained therein, but I am certain that it will be a source of assurance for our local media operatives, as they have nothing to fear from our administration,” Mr. Jagdeo said.

“I want to say emphatically that my Government has never and will never seek to victimise, punish or in any way target media organisations simply because they do not share the Government’s view on an issue,” he told a very distinguished gathering.

According to him, this behaviour is not only reprehensible to the governing People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) but it is reprehensible to him personally. “It also goes against our core values and belief and our struggles within this country,” he said.

“Many of you will know that the struggle for the return of press freedom to Guyana began a long time ago; it was a struggle that members of the PPP/Civic participated in and now that we have won the right for the press to freely express itself without any fear, we will commit ourselves here today to defend that right,” the Head of State said.

The President recalled a time in Guyana when journalists were not only harassed, but some even lost their lives, and when simple things like newsprint were banned and people had to struggle to import it.

He noted that there are many, many people who participated in that struggle - persons such as Hubert Williams, Rick Mentis, Father Harold Wong, Father Andrew Morrison, Father Bernard Dark (who lost his life), Mike James, Rickey Singh, Janet Jagan, Moses Nagamootoo, Eusi Kwayana and Moses Bhagwan. Solidarity and support were also lent by a host of media associations, both local and foreign, he said.

According to the President, the PPP/Civic fought to restore some fundamental rights and to restore democracy in Guyana, not just as an expression in the Constitution, but to give tangible expression of that constitutional clause which was always there, but was never really given concrete expression within the society.

Mr. Jagdeo also noted the flourishing of the large number of media houses in Guyana, especially in the electronic media. “We have some 23 media houses here and this is evidence that there is no control in that section,” he pointed out.

The President, however, pointed out that “we have also had certain sections of our media promoting race hate and religious hate”.

According to him, this was the concern of all the Presidents before him, and whether the Chapultepec Declaration protected all forms of free speech.

But the President said he was informed by one of the IAPA representatives that not all free speeches are protected, especially if it is racially inflammatory.

“And that was the decisive moment when I decided to sign it because we cannot, in a multi-ethnic country like ours, we cannot tolerate expressions that are clearly unconstitutional, against our laws and try to divide our people.”

Among those present at the signing ceremony yesterday were Coordinator of the Inter-American Press Association’s (IAPA) Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Mr. Ricardo Trotti; Mr. Sean Casey, Project Administrator of IAPA; Ministers of the Government, members of the diplomatic community, distinguished guests and members of the media.

The President also assured that his Government will protect the right of the media in this country.

Mr. Jagdeo also noted that being a politician, he does not want to judge what is “responsible behaviour” by sections of the media, but said this should be judged by “independent bodies” because there is always that “thin line” when it comes to judgement.

“…but in Guyana we have passed the narrow line between what is press freedom and what may be considered inflammatory speech,” he explained.

The President also told IAPA representatives Trotti and Casey that he will give them a copy of a video tape before they leave Guyana to judge for themselves whether it upholds the high standards of the media profession.

Local IAPA representative and publisher of the Stabroek News, Mr. David DeCaires recalled that when he first approached President Cheddi Jagan some years ago to sign the Declaration he got a very cordial response and the matter was taken under consideration.

DeCaires said he got the impression that Dr. Jagan had wanted to sign it, but for one reason or another, he never got around to doing so before his untimely death.

“I then pursued the matter with his successor, President Janet Jagan, but she had many things on her plate and she never got around to doing it either, and then I continued to negotiate with her successor, our current President - President Jagdeo (and) I must say from the outset he took the matter seriously and I am delighted that he eventually agreed to sign it,” he said.

DeCaires also noted that IAPA is a highly organised and focused organisation dedicated to press freedom in the hemisphere.

In giving a synopsis of it, DeCaires noted that IAPA has been an extremely significant organisation in the hemisphere. In 1994, it caused the Declaration of Chapultepec to be drafted, pursuant to its belief that a free press is an integral part of democracy and that in fact, one cannot have a democracy without a free press, DeCaires said.

According to him, the Declaration attempts to define some of the conditions essential to the existence of a free press and since 1994, IAPA has asked members from individual territories to approach their authorities and ask their Heads of State to sign it.

DeCaires said considerable success has been enjoyed over the years and many Presidents have signed.

He also pointed out that it is not a binding Declaration with any legal commitments. “One can see it as a Declaration from a spiritual commitment to the concept of a free press and an acceptance of the fact that a free press is an integral part of a democratic society,” he asserted.

The local IAPA representative also noted that many Governments have signed it and “this Government today joins as democratic Governments in the region in making clear its commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press and free speech.

“We have, of course, a constitutional commitment to freedom of expression (and) the Government I think has a good record in press freedom, with the single exception of the radio monopoly by the state,” he said.

DeCaires, however, noted that there is now an official commitment to redress the balance when the new broadcasting legislation comes into being, hopefully later this year.

“That legislation has been in embryo for longer than I care to remember but one must hope that a draftsman has been assigned to it. There are precedents, it really is not all that difficult and there are very good precedents in this very region that the draftsman can look at, and so I am hoping that later this year we will have new broadcasting legislation and private radio licensing will be issued,” DeCaires said.

Trotti, in his address, thanked DeCaires, whom he described as a distinguished member of IAPA and one of the organisation’s most active participants from the Caribbean region, for being so instrumental in trying to get Guyana to sign the Declaration.

Trotti also thanked President Jagdeo for accepting to sign.

“We at the IAPA believe that without freedom of the press there cannot be democracy; a democracy can only exist where the press is free and independent and in a country whose citizens can seek, receive and express opinions and disseminate them freely without restrictions,” Trotti told the gathering.

According to him, since the Declaration came into being at the IAPA’s Hemispheric Conference on Free Speech held at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1994, the organisation has sought to spread its principles to various countries and territories and has since been signed and endorsed by 26 nations throughout the Americas, as well as by journalists, social and political leaders, international organisations and especially, by thousands of private citizens.

Guyana now joins countries such as Argentina, the Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, the United States and Uruguay in supporting the Declaration.

Trotti told the gathering that in simple terms, the Declaration of Chapultepec is based on the account that “no law nor act of Government may limit freedom of expression or of the press, whatever the medium of communication.”