President signs press freedom declaration
Stabroek News
May 25, 2002

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President Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday signed the Declaration of Chapultepec, emphasising his government's commitment to freedom of the press and free speech.

"I will protect the right [to freedom of expression] and I hope your organisation [the Inter-American Press Association] will help with responsible behaviour," Jagdeo told Richardo Trotti, coordinator of IAPA's committee on freedom of the press and information at the signing ceremony yesterday at the newly refurbished State House.

He underscored the need for media operatives to strive for the highest standards and to be at all times truthful, accurate, objective and fair and not to seek to divide people along ethnic or religious lines.

Jagdeo is the first PPP/Civic president to sign the 1994 Declaration of Chapultepec. An approach was first made to the late president, Dr Cheddi Jagan to have the said declaration signed by IAPA's representative in Guyana, Editor-in-Chief of the Stabroek News David de Caires, and subsequent approaches were made to his successor Mrs Janet Jagan and then Jagdeo.

Jagdeo said yesterday that the deciding moment for him in signing the declaration was when he saw an e-mail from Trotti to de Caires, which said that the declaration did not protect all forms of free speech and was against speech preaching hate and speech that was racially inflammatory. He said he could not tolerate such expressions as they would destroy the country and noted that media operatives in Rwanda pushed people to genocide. He said that in Guyana the narrow line between press freedom and inflammatory speech had been passed and promised to give Trotti a copy of a tape for him to judge whether what was contained within upheld the highest standards of the media profession.

The President said the PPP/C participated in the struggle for the return of press freedom to Guyana and now that that right was won, commits itself to defending that right. He said that the establishment of Stabroek News in 1986 under the former PNC government was a watershed in restoring press freedom to Guyana.

Jagdeo said that his endorsement of the Declaration of Chapultepec should be a source of assurance to the local media corps that it has nothing to fear from his administration. "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. Such behaviour would be reprehensible to me personally...."

The President said yesterday that the Constitution gave tangible expression to free speech and a multitude of media houses are flourishing in Guyana today.

Referring to a statement by Trotti that freedom of expression had to come before one could demand responsible behaviour by media operatives, the President said there was evidence of no control in the media and certain sections promoted race hate and religious hate. He said the government had not adopted a heavy-handed approach in dealing with the unregulated environment in which the host of television stations operate, but hoped that an independent body would do so and this would lead to the evolution and merger of some of these stations as broadcast regulations were given effect to. Jagdeo expects the broadcast legislation to be in place before the end of the year.

The President also said he hoped to see the radio sector liberalised in an orderly way.

De Caires, who delivered brief remarks before Jagdeo signed, expressed his delight that the President agreed to sign the Declaration, which is not binding, but an acceptance that a free press is an integral part of a democracy. He said the government had a good track record on press freedom with the single exception of the radio monopoly and had committed itself to redressing this with broadcast legislation later this year.

The Stabroek News Editor-in-Chief said he hoped a draughtsman had been assigned the task of crafting the legislation, noting that there were good precedents in the region to follow. He expressed the hope that later this year the legislation will be activated and new radio licences issued. He said this would be good for state radio which did not do well in the absence of competition.

Trotti, in remarks, said that IAPA believed that without freedom of the press, there could be no democracy and the declaration was based on the concept that no law or act of government may limit freedom of expression or of the press, whatever the medium.

He said IAPA was pleased to bring the declaration to Guyana and its endorsement of it was a part of a campaign currently being undertaken to gain support of the English-speaking nations in the Caribbean Basin.

The declaration has been signed by 26 states: Argentina, the Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St Kitts-Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, the United States and Uruguay. Puerto Rico has also signed and Aruba and the Netherland Antilles also signed yesterday. Barbados and St Lucia are to sign some time soon.

Trotti said the signing yesterday was a personal commitment on behalf of Jagdeo and it was the people of Guyana's responsibility to make sure that this and future governments followed the principles of the declaration.

The Declaration of Chapultepec was adopted at a hemispheric conference on free speech in Mexico in 1994. Among its ten principles are that no people or society can be free without freedom of expression and of the press; that the authorities be compelled by law to make available in a timely and reasonable manner the information generated by the public sector and that 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.