March 12, 2007
The President may have chosen the wrong word, “lazy”, to describe the approach taken by some of our journalists to their profession. However, there have always been concerns about some media operatives being extremely enthusiastic about pursuing certain issues while being very timid towards others.
The Guyana Press Association has been quick to fire back against the President's remarks. Yet when one political leader publicly threatened to slap Uncle Freddie, there was no immediate response by the Guyana Press Association.
Last September, I expressed my concern that up to that time only journalists attached to this newspaper had contributed to a fund to assist the families of the five Kaieteur News pressmen killed one month earlier. That, to me, was the most tragic event for press freedom in the Caribbean and at the time I was not at all pleased and still am disappointed by the response of our journalists towards contributing to the fund.
I have, within these columns over the years, consistently pointed out the many shortcomings of some media operators. Sections of the media were excited when telephone records were revealed which showed that calls were made from a Minister's phone to one Axel Williams. Yet when an alleged telephone conversation, said to be between a security official and a political operative was aired, the Guyana Press Association issued a statement arguing that the airing of that statement constituted a breach of privacy.
Just last month the Peeper was forced to be critical of those journalists who, when the Head of State hosts press conferences, seem overwhelmed by his presence and thus are unable to ask the tough questions that should be asked.
For example, when the President made some comments critical of the bureaucracy within the Education Ministry, I was surprised that no one asked him where the buck stops and what he was planning to do about the shortcomings he identified.
Has any journalist so far at any Press Conference asked the government how long the Defence Board's report into the missing AK47s has been in the hands of the government and what are its findings? I can understand the opposition not taking an interest in this matter, but why should professional journalists not be pressing the government to reveal the findings of the report, given the time it has been it the government's hands.
During the elections campaign, also, I was forced to question why the Guyana Press Association had not issued a statement condemning the abuse and harassment of journalists at a PNCR meeting in Linden. I am not certain whether a statement was subsequently issued but what I do know is that there was not the quickness of response as we have seen concerning the President's remarks about “lazy” journalists.
None of our journalists responded to the Peeper's challenge to ask the Trinidadian authorities whether they had contacted their Guyanese counterpart before allowing the Americans to take Roger Khan out of their jurisdiction.
In relation to Khan I had noted how eager our local journalists were to pursue a possible link between Roger Khan and the government. A direct question on this matter was even posed by one journalist to the General Secretary of the PPP. However, I have not seen the same enthusiasm demonstrated by our media in finding out whether there was a link between Khan and the security forces.
Khan, himself, had claimed that he and a senior police official were once friends, and he had further claimed that he was in regular contact with the army after it was discovered that the AK47s were missing.
Khan had also alleged that he had a meeting with US embassy officials. He had even provided details about the meeting but the US embassy denied the report. None of our journalists has ever taken up this issue. Neither were they interested in whether Khan had assisted the United States embassy in identifying the voices of the kidnappers of a security official of the embassy.
After Khan was arrested, one news anchor made a comment that since Khan's arrest the price of cocaine on the local market had increased. I wonder how he came by such knowledge. This is what passes off as journalism in this country.
In June of last year, I challenged the local media fraternity to ascertain whether the family of the late Walter Rodney was ever opposed to a commission of inquiry being held during an election year and whether in fact they were satisfied with the pace at which plans are proceeding to have this commission of inquiry which was promised by the government since 2005. No one has followed up on this angle. Why?
I do not believe that we will ever have this inquiry and it will be left to the release of declassified information by the CIA and the US State Departments to embarrass the local authorities and identify the architects behind the assassination.
Then there was the case about the alleged loss of funds from a political party. Some media houses seem the least interested in pursuing this matter.
It is against this background of double standards and selective enthusiasm that the President made his remarks about “lazy” journalists and wondering why some journalists were pressing the American officials about the pittance that is given to the anti-narcotics fight in the country.
The Guyana Press Association may have felt hurt by the comments of the Head of State but the GPA should ask itself whether it is satisfied with the high degree of partisanship within the media. The media, which itself should be an agent of enlightenment, a model through which we can overcome our divisions, has itself become a microcosm of the divisions within the country.
The Guyana Press Association should therefore not feel slighted by the President's remarks. It should instead see it as an assessment of the state of the media in the country and strive to initiate a debate about achieving greater standards of professionalism.
Last year when five of our colleagues were slain I wrote that “Journalism is not just a profession. Journalism is not a job. Journalism is a calling. It is a calling to a higher cause, a cause of truth, fairness, accuracy and balance. This is what we as members of the media are called to and this is why we have faced such trying adversity over the years. We are both loved and hated for the calling we represent. And if we truly believe in our hearts that it is right to be advocates of the truth, of fairness, of accuracy and of balance, if we believe that the public good is served by communicating to the citizenry that which is of public interest and do so with a professional and unbiased touch, then we are true journalists.”
There is a great deal of work to be done before the Guyana Press Association can take the moral high ground. Standards must be improved and greater professionalism exercised if the perceptions and reality of selective enthusiasm and selective amnesia are to be erased.
It is for these reasons that I urge the Guyana Press Association to put its house in order and instead of taking umbrage with the President's observations, work with its members to improve the level of professionalism.
One of the immediate things that I would love to see the GPA do is to reactivate the media monitoring mechanism that was in place in the run-up to and during the elections campaign. I am sure that there are international organisations with an interest in social cohesion and professional standards within the media that would be willing to fund the hiring of media specialists from outside of the region to assist in setting up a permanent media complaints and monitoring mechanism.