Journalists must be ever more mindful of their roles
-- British High Commissioner
-- proposes `Paul Persaud’ journalism excellence award

Guyana Chronicle
May 4, 2007

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BRITISH High Commissioner Fraser Wheeler yesterday urged journalists to be ever more mindful of their roles as watch dogs and advocates given the extended reach of the media.

His call came in a statement for World Press Freedom Day observed yesterday when he also proposed that the British High Commission, in collaboration with the Guyana Press Association, fund an award for excellence in journalism under the name of the oldest local journalist, Mr. Paul Persaud, who died last week.

Here is the text of Mr. Wheeler’s statement:

“Today we join in observing World Press Freedom Day.

It is a day when all parties - governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations as well as civil society, take note of the crucial role a free press plays in strengthening democracies and fostering development around the world.

The media is considered a key building block of any democratic society, and especially of societies struggling to build their democracies. It serves as both watchdog and advocate, communicating to both governments and to citizens, and it provides a forum for competing and conflicting views.

The media also has a role to help fight poverty. It can point to the consequences of actions that might have a poverty dimension, suggest better ways of alleviating poverty, and expose corruption that would frustrate development. It can also influence and inform publics on the global, regional and national linkages that exist today and that affect development, in positive and negative ways.

In countries where full freedom of the press is practised there is reduced official corruption, increased government accountability, and more participation by civil society in nation building. These benefits in turn lead to fewer conflicts, greater political stability, greater investment, improved social services, increased trade and numerous other advantages.

The impact of globalisation has been pronounced. Information travels now faster then the speed of light, and an event in one part of the world can be seen, heard and discussed within seconds in another part. Governments can no longer control what information comes into or goes out of a given country. The press can now influence public opinion not just at home but across the globe. Therefore journalists need to be ever more mindful of their roles as watch-dogs and advocates.

Also we are now all potentially part of the media: technology has advanced to the extent that we can all now produce high quality moving images, and beam them around the world. We can write blogs, and acquire audiences. But this facility is available to all, which means it can be abused by those intent on harm. Terrorists can show pictures worldwide of decapitation, and can seek to influence audiences of their cause. This is the new context in which press freedom lies.

Internationally, there are a number of events to mark World Press Freedom Day.

In St. Lucia, Caribbean media representatives are gathered for a two-day conference under the theme "Media Democracy, Media Laws and Access to Information: Challenges for Caribbean Journalists and Media Organisations". The conference is expected to provide a forum for informed discussion on the relationship between media and democracy, and the challenges faced by media in enhancing democratic governance in the region.

In the UK, university students are writing essays on "The Greatest Threat to World Media Freedom" and there are debates on the theme "World Media Freedom is in Retreat".

UNESCO will mark World Press Freedom Day by conferring their World Press Freedom Prize on a deserving individual, organisation or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom somewhere in the world. The prize is named in honour of Guilleramo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota, on 17 December 1986. Cano's writings had offended Colombia's powerful drug barons.

These activities bring to light that even though world press freedom has come to be accepted by many societies, the struggle is not over. There are still a number of challenges to be faced and the fight to preserve this basic human right goes on.

This year's theme "Press Freedom, Safety of Journalists and Impunity" is most fitting for today BBC journalist Alan Johnston is still being held captive. We lend our voice to the call for the immediate release of Johnston.

As we observe World Press Freedom Day we pay tribute to those journalists who have lost their lives in the pursuit of keeping us informed.

I also want to pay tribute to two Guyanese journalists who have left us recently - Angela Osborne and Paul Persaud – aka - Paul O'Hara. Many of you may be aware that Paul launched the first independent news agency in the Caribbean in the 1930's.

To this end I propose that the High Commission in collaboration with the Guyana Press Association fund an award for excellence in journalism under Paul's name.”