Reversing the spiral descent of journalism in Guyana through training
March 13, 2004
(The following is an address to the opening of the Government of Guyana/UNESCO National media Workshop by Mr. Robert Persaud, Information Liaison to the President and Head, Government Information Agency, at the Ocean View Convention Center on March 10, 2004)
In the Guyana of 2004, a national media workshop on ethics and legal considerations is most timely.
We are an emerging democracy. Media freedom was restored just over a decade ago. The exercise of this vital freedom continues to be a challenge, resulting in abuse by sections of the local media landscape. The euphoria that came with the ushering in of a democratic government in 1992 was soon dispelled by the realization that the new found press freedom, concomitant with this democracy, had been at times grabbed by some with their own agendas.
In this context, Guyanese have been wooed and misinformed and at times bludgeoned by a new breed of media practitioner so bent on getting their message across that they employ their own brand of journalism, informed by their own code of ethics, violating all the rules of libel. Some are quite insensitive to the basic "dos" and "don'ts" of their profession. The irresponsibility of some media outfits is indeed unsettling in a country, which has produced internationally renowned responsible and professional journalists. Sadly, when media freedom was stifled, during the dictatorship period, the best we had in journalism were forced to go elsewhere. Often some of these older journalists would remark that the new breed, still wet behind the ears, has assumed arrogance and a "we-know it-all" attitude that makes them quite "unteachable." But I strongly disagree. Among this new breed, there are many who seek to pursue a degree of professionalism. They are, however, constrained by different factors including lack of training opportunities.
The Government is committed to nurturing and protecting this freedom so vital for the sustenance of democracy. In order to achieve a higher media standard, there has been the recognition of the need for more training opportunities. His Excellency, the President during a State Visit to India secured additional media training slots as part of a wider and on-going effort. This joint Government of Guyana and UNESCO programme is another attempt to correct the chronic media-training deficit. But Governmental interventions alone cannot correct the situation. Media owners and operators too need to be more aggressive and invest in the training of their staff. Today's media workshop with the support of UNESCO is another demonstration of the Government playing its part.
The public is generally, very suspicious of the media. They are at times confused about the role of some operatives. This needs to be addressed. However, training alone will not remove this suspicion. There must be a framework that holds all operatives to the highest standards of this noble profession. For example, the suggestion of a press complaints council where the print media operatives would voluntarily submit themselves to scrutiny and review by their peers when members of the public make complaints against them for committing excesses or breaches of ethics and the basic tenets of journalism. We need action in this area to save the profession from a spiral descent.
For the broadcast media, the Government has committed itself to passing a broadcast legislation with the involvement of various stakeholders. The President, in his Republic Day address to the nation, noted the importance of this legislation which is not intended to control, but to provide a regulatory framework, as exists in all other democracies, for this medium to operate. The public consultation process had started and efforts are being made with the main opposition party and stakeholders to move the draft legislation forward. The draft legislation, contrary to a report filed overseas by a local stringer, is not intended to limit media freedom. This legislation protects media freedom from being abused and misused. As a matter of fact, the draft legislation is mild when compared to legislation existing even in the bastion of democracy - the United States of America. For instance, the US Federal Communications Commission recent ruling and heavy fine imposed on a television network which broadcast live the Janet Jackson's wardrobe failure exposing her right mammary gland before millions at the super bowl. To clear any misconceptions, efforts are being made to have a comparative analysis of the draft legislation and several others in the region and beyond. The case for such legislative measure has been well made. A recent research paper for the World Bank by Dr. Ann Hudock of World Learning posits that in order to promote free and independent media there must be "appropriate legislative and regulatory mechanisms specific to the media sector."
Participants, the fact that you are here at this workshop tells me that you are among those who recognize the need to learn more about your craft, so as to pursue it with integrity and responsibility. We are willing to work with you in developing your skills and awareness of the ethical and legal considerations necessary to pursue your trade.
Ethics in any profession is vital to its well-being. Journalism that is irresponsible, representing narrow, sectional interests, and twisting the truth to satisfy such interests, is far from desirable, and those who practice this kind of journalism are tainted with the brush that makes them pariahs among their peers.
Ethics, of course, are unwritten rules, a sort of gentleman's code that is not legally binding, but which nonetheless is worthy of consideration at all times. There are occasions when the code becomes blurred, perhaps by self-interest or some other imperative, and one is not quite sure what to say. With any journalist worth his/her salt there are warning bells that ring out clearly and loudly when such moments of truth come upon the writer or broadcaster; and he/she must know how to proceed without doing violence to the ethical fabric of the profession.
This workshop seeks to put in place those warning bells, as well as to arouse in you practitioners an awareness of the ethical component of your profession.
Then there is another focus of this workshop, one that could be considered much more important as financial and other penalties are often imposed for infringements of this aspect of journalism. And here we are talking about the legal aspects of reporting.
Recently there have not been many libel suits brought against our journalists and their media houses; though this is not to say that not many libels are committed. Listen to the talk show hosts or read some of the printed materials in the newspapers. Rather those who bear the brunt of libelous journalism often say: "Why bother?" They seem to think of the tiresome litigation process and the long wait for the matter to be called and then to decide it's not worth the while. Just a handful of these legal infringements now reach the courts, while journalists are learning that freedom of the press does not mean that one can say what one wants to say.
As in any other area of freedom, there are fences beyond which one must not go. I am sure that your very able facilitators will allow you very useful insights into keeping on this side of libel and slander in your work.
Finally, while the emphasis of this workshop is on ethical and legal considerations, a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society, such as ours, requires journalists to practice a greater degree of responsibility and sensitivity. I am quite sure during the course of this workshop you will be provided with some practical tools on how to operate within this context. Perhaps, with UNESCO's help, we can also convene another training workshop that deals with cross-cultural and ethnic sensitive reporting in our country.