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Press freedom goes beyond being able to publish and broadcast

Dear Editor,

As we observe World Press Freedom Day 2022, I call on the AG and Government to revamp our libel laws to allow for full freedom of expression and unbridled public comment for the promotion of proper governance and accountability in national affairs. It appears as if libel lawsuits are being used to put papers out of business, apart from luring away their reporters, including oil and gas reporters, using state funds. This most likely was meant to hurt the KN’s advocacy for renegotiation of a rotten oil contract. There had been garnishment of KN’s bank accounts and application filed to put the company’s assets in receivership. Libels seem to be a political and money making activity.

Guyanese welcome the statement by the Heads of Mission of the ABC EU countries that press attention to accountability has never been more important in Guyana with the large revenue stream entering government coffers. That’s a nice way to say real journalists should be looking into corruption. Let’s also remember Julian Assange languishing in a British jail for his “WikiLeaks” exposes and Edward Snowden who found refuge in Russia and cannot go back to the USA. Even democratic governments usually hate journalists who expose their evils. Maybe we would have our own “Guyana WikiLeaks” when our journalists become advanced, investigative journalists rather than relying on Government sources for information. It’s a shame that in Guyana the most popular “pretend journalist” is a folksy “gaff man” with no journalism training or proper grammar and language skills, who cannot do any “critical” analysis or investigation. Worse still is that he seems to be the preferred interview forum for the Government side which reportedly has not done post-cabinet briefings for 641 days. The PPP Government, aided by conniving columnists and operatives, has also recently engaged in a sustained vilification of Civil Society groups who dared to ask questions about oil and gas, the environment, and deals entered into by Government. Those were questions a vigilant press/media should be asking.

Press freedom goes beyond being able to publish and broadcast. Press freedom is harmed when the Government refuses to consult the Opposition, refuses to answer questions in parliament, refuses to allow full disclosures of public documents on public projects consuming billions and trillions of dollars, and refuses to provide information when requested by the press and media , concerned citizens and Civil Society groups. For instance, ongoing oil production data, oil and gas project details and studies, natural resource contract details have not been disclosed by this Government despite promises by top Government officials, and complaints to international bodies. Government routinely ignores those requests, no matter how many times you ask. No wonder the recently released Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Report has given the Government low scores for transparency and disclosures, and mostly low scores overall. Press freedom is also attacked when governments withhold ads from independent media critical of Government policies and practices exposes corruption and wrongdoing. Both the KN and SN have suffered from such punishment over the years.

In my view, Guyana does not have strong investigative journalists. The best are in KN and SN. The bastion of a free, independent press in Guyana are the Stabroek News (SN), later joined by the Kaieteur News (KN). The SN emerged as our savior during the Hoyte PNC era. I noticed when press conferences are held now, too many “softball” questions are asked and reporters seem scared to ask tough questions. It took the foreign “Vice News” to ask tough questions and for the first time we heard about a “Mr. His” having a high end neighbor and owning substantial national assets. Right now, there is too much information pertaining to oil and natural resources that are not disclosed, and reporters are not hounding the Government officials or suing to get full disclosure. For its part, the Government side makes promises of disclosures, but critical information is not being released. The “Commissioner of Information” position seems to be a totally useless position. What does that do and why are we wasting money there? That money can pave our streets at Whim! The other two major papers in Guyana now the state owned Chronicle and privately owned Guyana Times cannot be described as independent and free because they are pro Government papers and most of the time they don’t publish letters that might be seen as critiques of Government policy . It appears they hardly allow responses from people being attacked in their letter columns. The Chronicle as a state-owned paper must be open to all viewpoints.

On the matter of libels, we must revamp our libel laws to promote a greater measure of press freedom. In the US, if someone accuses you of lying about them in print and sues you, that person needs to prove that what you said was false, has to prove that he or she was harmed by what was published, and show that there was intentional libel. In Guyana, our libel laws reverse the burden of proof as a defendant you have to prove that you did not libel, that what you said was true. To win a libel case, the plaintiff only needs to demonstrate that the statement hurts her reputation. In the USA, what is considered public political comment may be considered libel in Guyana’s system. What is said in a satirical column would most likely not be considered libel in the USA. In Guyana, both the Government side and Opposition side have used libel lawsuits as political weapons. Also, the PPP Government should repeal or revise the draconian provisions of the cybercrime laws which it opposed when the PNC passed them.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jerry Jailall

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