“Advisory’' game, information, CARICOM and communication By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
June 16, 2002

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LIKE its headquarter base, Guyana, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which this year enters its 30th anniversary, needs to get its acts together in the coordination and implementation of policies and programmes relating to information flow and communications technology.

There appears as much unease, if not confusion, in the integration and implementation of information and communication, and the use of communication technology by the Guyana Government, as there are in the integration and operationalising of information and communication technology policies and programmes by the CARICOM Secretariat in Georgetown .

Within weeks of Guyana hosting the 23rd regular annual Heads of Government Conference, the country's Prime Minister, Sam Hinds, under whose portfolio broadcasting and telecommunications fall, is seemingly being frustrated by a mere Advisory Committee on Broadcasting (ACB) in the exercising of legitimate powers, derived from the process of free and fair election of a government.

This committee, “advisory", I must emphasise, and financed out of funds provided by a foreign government, lacks the will and/or capacity to honour its obligation to the Guyanese public to even condemn the broadcasting, by three local "television" (sic) stations, of a videotape showing a criminal, wanted for murder, dressed in stolen army fatigues and posing with an AK-47 rifle, pouring out his race hate vitriol and slander against the police and the governing administration.

It was to become known as the 'Andrew Douglas crime show' on those stations, two of which remain totally unapologetic for their anti-government crusade and irresponsible anti-national policies that inspired the airing of such an unsourced, unedited and most outrageous videotape.

The respected Jamaican journalist of many years, Claude Robinson, who formerly headed the Jamaica Broadcasting Service and is currently Senior Fellow in Research and Policy Group of the UWI's School of Business (Mona Campus), in a recent analysis published in the Jamaica Observer, on `Press Freedom and the public interest in the Caribbean’, made some very pertinent observations, two of which I will cite:

First, that media and owners and managers must continue to press governments of the region to change libel laws. "That is", he said, "in the public interest. But the media also need to address issues other than the actions of governments".

Robinson then went on to give at least three examples that are expected of journalists and the media, first being to "respect their own canon of commitment to truth, to the pursuit of accuracy, fairness and objectivity, and to the clear distinction between news and advertising...."

Media Responsibility
As Robinson pointed out, after alluding also to the "corrupting influence of large advertisers", in the final analysis, "freedom of the press is not only about the right of media owners to broadcast or publish without governmental restraint.

"It is", he stressed, "also about the right of the public to be fully and accurately informed on matters which allow them to act as responsible citizens".

In all honesty can those television stations that aired the Andrew Douglas videotape and those elements who host controversial political talk shows really qualify as acting as "responsible citizens" and in the "public interest"?

The three-member advisory body, which appears to be having its own "game show" in town, cannot be a substitute for the minister of any democratically elected government. Any such minister must understand that he/she cannot afford to ignore the responsibility for promoting policies that are characterised by respect for the rule of law. Simply put, you cannot be given a basket to fetch water.

If, therefore, the ACB cannot even condemn publicly the stations for what they have done, it is simply pointless for Prime Minister Hinds to wait for a response from the committee to his request for a 'review' on the issue of appropriate sanctions.

Rather, since the Jagdeo-Hoyte dialogue process has been suspended - if not really scuttled - then the Prime Minister should take the initiative in recommending such actions as may be advised by the Attorney General, as well as his ministry's relevant technical officers.

The future of the ACB itself should be speedily reviewed, rather than waste time and money on a body that has succeeded in generating more cynicism than optimism in a relatively short period of existence.

It is also relevant to ask what specifically have the police done in terms of seeking the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the broadcast of the `Andrew Douglas’ videotape, while they continue their endless "investigations" that are yet to prove productive - in any form, locating source of production and distribution, for instance.

Or, for that matter, what professional interest has the DPP himself shown in this widely publicised case of national importance?

Of much greater importance, of course, would be the arrest of Douglas and his fellow armed criminals who killed and maimed, in their escape from prison since February 23, and who have since continued to make a mockery of the police efforts to capture them.

Their collaborators, of whatever profession, social status, ethnicity and politics, must bear a terrible burden for the waves of killings, robberies, criminal violence, and the deep fear that today plague this country, forcing Anglican Bishop Randolph George, respected for his courageous outspokenness, to question whether Guyana had become a nation devoid of law and order.

CARICOM Secretariat
So far as the Information and Communication Programme of the CARICOM Secretariat is concerned, within which programme falls what is also known as `Communications’, there seems to be an urgent need also for a review of how to make it more relevant and effective in servicing the myriad programmes/activities of the Secretariat and, by extension, the needs of the Community as a whole.

Instead for example, of the kind of jargon-laced documents, some with confusing concepts on information flow and communications technology that surfaced for last month's meeting in St. John's, Antigua, of Ministers Responsible for Information, Communication Technology, (ICT), there seems a requirement for the Secretary General perhaps should be presented by his relevant technical advisers with a "memorandum for action".

Such a document should at least reflect some of the more major recommendations resulting from the series of meetings of officials and ministers, in Kingston, Bridgetown, Port-of-Spain, Georgetown and, of course, the inaugural meeting of the Standing Committee of Ministers Responsible for Information at which substantial issues of conflicts between ministers responsible for information and those for communications and technology were discussed.

This conflict is yet to be resolved at the level of a number of member governments of the Community and, naturally impact on the work of the Secretariat itself in the effective functioning of its Information and Communication Programme.

Must there be separate meetings of Information Ministers and Ministers of Communications and Technology?

Or should a country’s delegation, headed by a minister, be able to deal with all such matters? The lack of clarity on those and other issues that surfaced at the inaugural meeting of Information Ministers in St. Kitts and Nevis in December 1995, were clearly evident for the recently-concluded ministerial meeting in St. John's.

Ministers of Information have acquired a dubious reputation for their failures to meet. Now that they met in St. John's, it was significant to note the comma between Information and Technology, instead of "and". Was it intended to be a Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Information AND (my emphasis) Technology?

And that the reason why there were more delegates and advisers for matters pertaining to communications technology than Information Ministers, may very well be related to who provided the funds and the basis for so doing, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for the meeting.

I happen to know that the flow of people-focused, people-friendly information about events and developments within CARICOM, and more specifically the programmes and activities of member governments are of particular interest to Secretary General Edwin Carrington.

The question is, with the 23rd CARICOM Summit just over two weeks away, is the Secretariat's Information and Communication Programme really equipped with the personnel, the vision and resources to provide what's really needed?