Just answer the questions Editorial
Stabroek News
July 28, 2003

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At the company’s annual general meeting on Friday, Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) Chairman Yesu Persaud launched a strong attack on the Stabroek News for a report that it had printed in relation to questions asked by the Guyana Securities Council (GSC) of DDL. He said that irreparable harm had been done to the company by the report and that “freedom is a good thing ... but freedom without constraint can be destructive”.

The crux of DDL’s concern was the reporting of several questions which Stabroek News had been erroneously told had been put to the company. Having been advised - not by DDL - that the questions had not been asked by the GSC of the company, a clarification was carried in a follow-up story. In addition to that, following an approach by the company, a front page apology was carried in a subsequent edition.

While the newspaper cannot be absolved of blame for carrying an erroneous report, the entire mix-up could have been avoided had DDL officials been willing and available to answer questions in connection with the matters put to it by the GSC. Prior to the publication of the Stabroek News item, numerous attempts had been made to contact company officials on this issue and messages left. None of the messages was responded to and nothing was heard from the company. Under those circumstances newspapers are left with two options: not to publish the story (which one feels would be the preferred choice of many of the companies to which questions are put and which option would defeat the whole purpose of the business of reporting) or to go ahead with the story using the best available information. The latter option was chosen using information that was thought to be reliable and was reliable up to an extent. Had the company made itself available to speak to Stabroek News the story would have been clarified and the “irreparable damage” referred to by DDL would have been easily avoided.

One would have thought that a company with a rich heritage, broad shareholding, enormously diversified and with vast linkages with the international business community would have by now invested in a corporate communications unit considering the numerous public interest matters that arise from time to time. DDL is a public company with a large number of shareholders who may not necessarily know what questions need to be asked to ensure an acceptable level of corporate accountability and this is where the news media and institutions - albeit a new one - like the GSC have an important role to play. Given the launch of the fledgling stock exchange and the new reporting requirements under the Securities Industries Act one would have expected an elevated response by the company to requests by the media for information. An enlightened response by DDL was unfortunately lacking.

The attack by the company on Stabroek News at its AGM is even more baffling considering that DDL is given fair and full coverage whenever warranted. At each launching of its products it would invite the news media and would be given favourable coverage. Recently it got extensive coverage in this newspaper of the launch of its fruit juice factory (a lead story) and for its financial results. The newspaper has demonstrated its willingness over a long period to cover the positive developments related to the company. DDL, based on the recent experience and previous ones, has appeared unwilling to answer questions in certain areas even though these impinge on the public’s interest and are in the interest of the company’s many shareholders. That approach simply won’t work and the newspaper will continue to report on DDL matters where the public has a vested stake. It is the duty of the company to ensure that it makes it officials available to answer straight-forward questions. This could obviate much of the discomfort that DDL referred to on Friday.

The reticence to speak to the media forthrightly and willingly is not peculiar to DDL. Much of corporate Guyana has little appreciation for the watchdog role of the press because it misunderstands or fears it. They conceive of the press as a convenient adjunct to their operations or as a conduit for press releases on charitable donations or selective dribs and drabs of information. That of course is a formula that will find favour in the streets of Pyongyang but has no place in the real world of reporting.

The press has a serious duty to discharge and this it must do responsibly especially where damage to reputations by misinformation could result. At the same time, the subjects of these queries must make a conscious effort to answer the questions and fulfil their obligations to their shareholders and the consuming public.

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