Turtle howler Editorial
Stabroek News
April 16, 2007

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Guyana's recertification for the export of shrimp to the United States is enormously important for two reasons. The US now consumes 70% of Guyana's shrimp output and this laudable programme to preserve sea turtles dovetails nicely with this country's own conservation outlook. So the green light for export is a job well done on the part of all involved.

Since annual recertification by the US has become almost a sure thing, this year's event might have gone unnoticed in these columns except for one bit of gross misinformation. In the official press release issued on the event by the Ministry of Agriculture it was stated that 2007 was the 10th consecutive year of certification since the introduction of the US programme. That is a clear falsehood. Guyana was unfortunately decertified in 1999 when whoever was entrusted with the task of ensuring that trawlers were equipped with the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) fell asleep on the job. There were serious consequences for local exporters as a result but fortunately after the necessary work Guyana was recertified.

It is unacceptable for the Ministry of Agriculture, which should be the ultimate repository of information on these programmes, to disseminate this falsehood. It is unacceptable for Ministry of Agriculture officials to allow their minister to present this information to the public without immediately clarifying it. It is unacceptable that the minister himself was not properly acquainted with the facts.

The absurdity is even more glaring as the Government Information Agency (GINA) also transmitted this misinformation to the public even though its institutional memory should have spared its blushes. In its April 10, 2007 press release GINA said "This is the tenth consecutive year that Guyana has received certification, having complied with all requirements set by the US for the importation of shrimp into that country". Had it consulted its release from 2005 it might not have regurgitated this error. In 2005, at the last recertification he presided over, the late Minister Satyadeow Sawh was quoted in a GINA release as saying 2005 was the 5th consecutive year of certification. Yet in the space of two years, the Ministry of Agriculture and GINA have doubled this to 10. Unfortunately this error was also repeated in our sister newspapers. The 10-year myth has now become a matter of record in newspapers and on the internet.

We hope this is not the type of reporting that President Jagdeo was referring to at his most recent press conference when he said that some media outlets had been "terribly patriotic" in their reporting. He was at the time referring to the reportage on Guyana's hosting of the world cup games and the publication of the ICC-CWC's scathing letter on the loss of confidence in the Local Organising Committee. That report had been published first in the Stabroek News and subsequently ignored or played down in other media. The President's "patriotism" remark was quite misplaced as there is no nexus between patriotism and straight reporting on matters such as preparations for hosting of an international tournament.

At its most benign the decertification howler is a careless error at the highest levels at the Ministry of Agriculture and reflective of slipshod preparation. At its worst the error may appear as the most grotesque attempt at revising history and glossing over important facts.

With its often iron-fisted control of information and frigidity toward the freedom of information bill, this government makes it difficult for even the barest information to be provided by public servants to the media.

Public servants follow the example set by their superiors. The most innocuous information requests by Stabroek News, for example, on trans fats and weather have resulted in the relevant official asking for questions in writing and utilizing other bureaucratic impedimenta. Another unacceptable trend is the penchant for inviting GINA and other media houses to interviews requested by Stabroek News. This happened last week in relation to an interview requested of the coast guard on piracy.

In these circumstances and under the guise of `patriotic' journalism there is a danger that the public could be fed a diet of misinformation, revisionism and distortion.