INCIDENT AT THE PEGUSUS HOTEL
BY Frederick Kissoon
February 3, 2004
ON Friday afternoon, at a USAID-sponsored presentation on remittances by the Guyanese Diaspora to Guyana at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel, an incident occurred that has tremendous implications for the functioning of the media in Guyana. This little incident has large significance for both the future of the media and Guyana. The issues are far from simple and once their complexities are unraveled, then maybe, just maybe, we can learn and internalize the lessons
At the end of his opening address, Dr. Mike Sarhan, head of the USAID mission in Guyana, took umbrage to an editorial in Stabroek News in which the writer stated that 50,000 persons leave Guyana on an annual basis. Dr. Sarhan felt that the reporter/writer was not responsible for two reasons. One was the writer's obliviousness to the fact that the figure was a typographical mistake and was corrected by the World Bank. The other was that, (in the mind of Dr. Sarhan) an astute journalist trained in his/her country's affairs should have known that such a figure had to be wrong because it meant an empty Guyana by 2016. Dr. Sarhan went on to make two points. First, journalists must research their stories properly and competently because a lot is at stake in a developing country like Guyana. Secondly, the media have a vital role to play in a country. Therefore the onus of responsibility must be accompanied by accountability, and that accountability is not to a person or an institution but is a value - the truth.
Mrs. Gitanjali Singh of Stabroek News then approached the podium and asked Dr. Sarhan for the right to reply. She was denied on the explanation that no individual reporter was named. Therefore, it would be out of protocol to grant the request. Dr. Sarhan's position was that he mentioned the erroneous report in passing and not as a substantial part of the text he had before him. Mrs. Singh then sought the intervention of Mr. Enrico Woolford. He transmitted the same request to Dr. Sarhan as Mrs Singh did and Dr. Sarhan stood his ground. Mr. Woolford's solicitation to the media members who were present to leave the gathering was premised on his interpretation that Dr. Sarhan had attacked the Guyanse media and did not allow the media to explain itself.
Evening News, Capitol News, Prime News, CNS-Channel 6, and Bert Wilkinson, representing Associated Press, then walked out. All the state media representatives remained. So did the Catholic Standard. Kaieteur News was not there.
Mr. Woolford offered his explanation to Kaieteur News in its Sunday, February I issue. He justified the walkout and his reasoning would have been funny if it weren't for the seriousness of the situation. He is quoted in Kaieteur News as saying that, "...for too long people have taken it upon themselves to abuse and to criticize the media." Mr. Woolford did not enlighten us which section of the media he was referring to. In that very issue of Kaieteur News, Adam Harris's editorial comes close to being what I just said of Enrico's comment if it weren't for the importance of the topic involved. Adam let us know that the media "must be the only profession" that people point an accusing finger at and "dictate how a reporter or a journalist should operate." But herein lies the problem that Woolford and Harris do not want to see. Before we come to that we have to examine the issues involved in this incident at the Pegasus Hotel.
First, was Dr. Sarhan right to deny Mrs. Singh from explaining her side? I believe the answer is 'Yes.' Dr. Sarhan was on good grounds because he did not name Mrs. Singh. Secondly, what was involved was the right to reply, which Mrs. Singh was entitled to. But this is where we in the media must learn the underlying rules of the profession. Mrs. Singh was fighting for the right to reply. Mr. Woolford was fighting for Mrs. Singh's right to reply. But do Singh and Woolford allow other people the right of/to reply? The answer is, 'whenever it suits their purpose.' This columnist as a university lecturer has been wrongly reported upon by Mrs. Singh during my dismissal by the University of Guyana and wasn't given the right to reply. Stabroek News even carried an editorial note justifying my dismissal. Two weeks ago, literally, an entire page was given to Mr. Al Creighton to analyze my accusations against the university. My reply was chopped by almost sixty percent. In yesterday's issue of Stabroek News, my comparison of Father Andrew Morrison with other national heroes was decapitated by almost eighty percent. I ask in all sincerity - where is my right to reply? Why should I not have the right to elevate Father Morrison above other national heroes and have that opinion expressed in Stabroek News?
The Sarhan/Singh/Wolford confrontation should force us to reflect on how we operate as media people. We can damage people's credibility, ruin their reputation or cause them to be dismissed if we do not allow them the right to reply. The right to defend your position is a rule which the media at all times must out of necessity grant people. The print media provide space for letters to the editors. The electronic media do not have such a facility, which is why this form of the media must manifest extreme energy in checking the facts before they report. This brings us to the third issue - responsibility.
Enrico Woolford and Adam Harris must understand an old sociological saying - "respect comes out of self-respect. If you do not show courtesy to your own children, then why should others be mannerly to them?" Mr. Woolford is vexed over the question of persons abusing the media. Harris takes the same line. But these two gentlemen must be suffering from amnesia. Did they read the report of the foreign experts who were here to monitor the media? It painted a gloomy picture of the professional role of the private media. Woolford and Harris are annoyed at media bashing. But what about government bashing and Minister bashing which have become a Pavlovian habit of almost all the private television newscasts? This is the lack of responsibility that Dr. Sarhan bemoaned in his presentation.
It was clear to me that Dr. Sarhan was trying to tell the media something but diplomatic nicety prevented him from spelling it out. He wanted to tell us that we are not reporting the truth. And the truth is, the private television newscasts are endangering the integrity of journalism in Guyana. The facts are so huge that they form a bigger landscape than Mount Everest. The leader of a political party with presidential ambition runs a nightly newscast on his television station. The crudity of his news where truth is the first casualty ought to be condemned by the Guyana Press Association. Then the Prime Ministerial Candidate for a political party, and who was an extremist talk-show host, becomes the editor of a nightly news feature. How more caricatured can the private media get? Do we trust this individual to uphold the sacred tenets of journalism?
Do we have a case of permanent amnesia among some of our journalists that are demanding respect but show no respect to or for others? Mr. Woolford penned a letter in Stabroek News in which he claimed that it was a phantom squad that shot the owner of the gas station at Buxton, Brian Hamilton. Did he get it right? No! The surveillance camera showed Mr. Hamilton was killed by wanted fugitive Mark Phillips - aka "Big Batty." This is the type of irresponsible journalism that Dr. Sarhan laments. What we have in the private electronic media is an agenda that is based on intense anti-government feelings. Such an attitude contradicts all the principles that journalism rests upon. We in the media may not like the ruling party. We may not like the opposition. We may like the private sector. But at all times, those must remain our private feelings. Always in the profession of journalism truth must come before personal perceptions. The incident at the Pegasus on Friday should teach us that lesson. I hope it does.