There will always be a tension between ethnic traditions and the Enlightenment ideal of a common humanity – de Caires
March 5, 2003
The time has come for the private media in developing countries to unite to provide competing professionally run news agencies with their own global perspectives given the technical possibilities, David de Caires Editor-in-Chief of the Stabroek News said.
Delivering a lecture in the Chancellor of the University of Guyana’s Distinguished Lecture Series at the Hotel Tower on Thursday afternoon on the subject `Free Speech and the Global Village’ de Caires said that a great deal of organisation would be required to develop the linkages between free private media in Asia, Africa and Latin America to provide the kind of comprehensive coverage of global news that is now lacking from a developing country standpoint.
He made these remarks against the background of the McBride report of 1980 which was commissioned by UNESCO in response to calls by the governments of some developing countries for a more balanced flow of information, both worldwide and within individual societies. He noted that the debate and the report were bedevilled by controversy, mainly because it was felt, “perhaps correctly, that many of the governments involved were more interested in controlling the flow of information than in making it more balanced”.
Yet, he said, there was some validity in the claim that the selection and presentation of international news was dominated by the main press agencies (and now by the ever present television media like CNN [Cable News Network] and the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]), which see the world from their own standpoint. He said these press agencies are run by media professionals who usually do a very good job but their priorities are often and understandably different from those of the developing world. As long as “we have to rely primarily or exclusively on those sources we will inevitably be strongly influenced by their world view”, he said adding that “the ultimate answer... then and now, was and is for the private media in developing countries to unite to provide competing professionally run news agencies with their own global perspectives.”
In this context, he mentioned the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) which came into being in 1975 on the initiative of news media in the Caribbean in conjunction with Reuters and with help from the United Nations Development Programme. CANA had provided a valuable service but had recently experienced severe financial problems.
Noting that there are embryonic attempts by various groups to get new news agencies going and that there have been other significant developments such as the starting of the independent Al Jazeera television station, the first in the Arab world, de Caires said that the global village, partly because of differential levels of economic and technological development, has a predominantly western face. “The huge and exciting challenge to redress the balance awaits some energetic media entrepreneurs in developing countries.”
On the issue of `free speech’, de Caires said the question faced in a developing country like Guyana, where the rule of law is only weakly established and the public social culture is fragile, is how to minimise “the damage grossly irresponsible free speech has caused in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and elsewhere while preserving our cherished constitutional right of freedom of expression.”
He said freedom of expression was a fundamental human right protected by the constitution. When this right of free expression is exercised irresponsibly, or is driven by ethnic passions it can present severe problems as was evident in Yugoslavia. He said there were examples in the most developed countries of media driven by narrow nationalisms or with warmongering agendas and the problem was not only a Guyanese one but a global one.
There is and will always be a tension between ethnic traditions and the `Enlightenment ideal’ that mankind is united by a common humanity that transcends ethnic and other divisions, he said, noting that the attempt to have a debate on ethnic insecurities and prejudices in the letter columns of the Stabroek News had generated more heat than light and led nowhere.
“Those who live in ethnically divided societies are familiar with the phenomenon whereby educated and normally balanced persons succumb to what one might call the ethnic virus which colours their thinking and leads them to take irrational positions on issues of the day. Yet, it would be naive to
underestimate or wish away the insecurities that exist in multi-ethnic states and the fear of loss of identity coupled with the desire to identify with a group or collective, a `nation’ within the state.”
He said that there are no easy answers to the problems posed by the ideal of free speech in all nations and particularly in ethnically divided nations. The question of should a line be drawn as to what was permissible and where, he said, was a question that all democracies must tackle at some stage. The many issues involved require careful and informed public debate as there are no simple answers.
The experience in Guyana has been that “when ethnic passions run high the law becomes impotent”, he said, stating that the law unanimously passed in parliament making the broadcasting or publishing of ethnically inflammatory statements quite a serious crime was a dead letter from the moment it was passed. “The mischief the law was aimed at continued and got worse and no one was ever charged.”
Raising the question of whether intellectuals can transcend ethnic loyalties and provide disinterested analysis, de Caires said there was some evidence that this was possible. However, there was an overwhelming tendency to take sides, he said, adding that “the political situation frames the debate, so to speak. It is difficult to get outside of it as almost every statement is deconstructed in ethnic terms. It is almost as if the ethnic tensions and insecurities make useful speech difficult if not impossible.”
Dealing with the question of whether UG has a role to play in helping to develop a professional media culture in Guyana, de Caires said that though the curriculum does include print and broadcast journalism, his experience with graduates was that they lack the kind of focused training in professional reporting which Guyana so badly needs and some media houses are looking for. He recommended that some effort be made to amend the curriculum to include this requirement.
As a young nation, he said, citizens will at some stage have to undertake the onerous task of evolving a modern philosophy of free speech which stresses its crucial importance as a vital and non-negotiable part of the country’s constitutional rights in an open society while at the same time trying to deal sensibly with the damage it can cause if exercised irresponsibly “or with malice aforethought.” He added that even in the developed democracies there is an ongoing debate as to where the line should be drawn on some of these issues.