Monday, June 1, 2009

GINA ads and press freedom

GINA ads and press freedom

Posted By Stabroek staff On June 1, 2009 @ 12:01 am In Editorial | 1 Comment

In its 2009 report, global press freedom watchdog, Freedom House said Guyana had moved up from partly free to free. The reason? Freedom House said Guyana regained its free status due to a decrease in attacks on journalists and the government’s decision to lift its boycott on advertising in the main independent newspaper. The newspaper it was referring to was Stabroek News which endured a 17-month advertising boycott at the hands of the government from November 2006.

From the inception SN’s late proprietor, Mr David de Caires and the newspaper’s supporters here, in the region and further afield had argued that the cessation of state advertising constituted a gross attack on press freedom based on the Declaration of Chapultepec which at Principle 7 says the granting or withdrawal of government advertising may not be used to reward or punish the media or individual journalists and which President Jagdeo himself had signed. Senior government officials and the various apologists for this administration had tried to argue that the cut-off was not an infringement of press freedom, but without any credibility or success.

The Freedom House report is a timely reminder coming just after World Press Freedom Day and also in light of what is perhaps another phase or the upshot of the government’s machinations against the independent media of this country.

Several weeks ago, SN was informed that the Government Information Agency (GINA) had begun placing state advertising in the Guyana Times newspaper, less than a year after its launch. The SN Advertising Manager has since written to GINA enquiring about the basis for the decision to distribute ads to the Guyana Times and received the response that the GINA Advertising Unit had “no obligation to explain its placement of advertisements to the Stabroek News.” When SN tried to elicit a reply at the end of 2006 about the cut-off of GINA ads to this newspaper, it will be remembered that President Jagdeo and a slew of government officials had argued that it was purely a business decision, the government having decided that the best “bang” for its buck would come via placement of ads in one state paper, the Guyana Chronicle, one private paper, the Kaieteur News and a weekly (read the PPP-aligned Mirror newspaper).

That statement by the government raised the obvious question about where such a policy had suddenly materialized from. Was it based on a professional examination of the readership of newspapers or was it simply the product of the whims and fancies of an ego-inflated bureaucrat, or grotesque politics originating from the Office of the President. There was never an answer to this and for 17 months Stabroek News and its supporters fought this injustice here and abroad and succeeded in mobilizing widespread support, while the government remained isolated and took a hammering from international press bodies. A key moment in the fight was the protest launched by this newspaper at the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting here in 2007 – something that SN never had grounds to contemplate before, even in the difficult Hoyte years from 1986 to 1992.

Eventually, just as suddenly as the ban had been imposed, it was lifted in May of 2008. There was no explanation from the government. Not even to say that it had now been decided that SN was a well-established paper with a larger readership and deserved a fair share of state advertising. The newspaper duly began receiving its customary share of GINA advertising but even then it was aware of the significance of the date of resumption. Just weeks prior to the resumption of advertising, news had begun to circulate that the Ramroop Group, which had controversially benefited from state concessions and whose principal the President had acknowledged was a friend of his, was planning to launch a daily newspaper. While this was hushed up for a while, the Ramroop Group duly launched its newspaper on June 5, 2008 amid controversy when the issue of concessions was raised and when it was later determined that President Jagdeo had misspoken on the matter.

Even then it was being surmised that the real purpose behind the restoration of SN’s ads was to pave the way for GINA ads to be delivered to the Guyana Times. But how could a reputable, independent newspaper which had been in existence for 21 years be starved of state ads for 17 months? What would that mean for the prospects of a new newspaper launched by a friend of the President with even friendlier content getting GINA advertising? Well, it seems that the government’s shame and that of its apologists has lasted less than a year. The Guyana Times is now receiving GINA ads even though the original arguments forwarded by the government spokesmen would have precluded it from this.

What this sequence of events betrays – and it has relevance to every other part of national life that the government controls – is that government policy isn’t generated in the classical manner. It isn’t devised, hammered out and burnished on the backs of serious debate, investigation and distillation of what is best for the people of this country, readers of newspapers, communities or the impoverished people of Washclothes. As the case of the cut-off to Stabroek News clearly exemplifies, it is generated by whim at best and if one were to consider the progression of events in the most pessimistic light possible – something far worse. If the Ramroop Group was launching a newspaper, it could not have been a three-month decision. Given the extent of the investment, planning and mobilization for start-up newspapers in particular, it would likely have been known to those who controlled GINA advertising for as long as 18 months to 2 years. Could that decision to initiate the Guyana Times have been the impetus behind the decision to cut off ads to SN in 2006? That is a question that only the government and a few others have the mandate to answer, but one which raises serious doubts about the government’s commitment to good governance and transparency. This new development will be watched closely by Stabroek News and the 2009 report of Freedom House puts it in its correct context.

From the outset of the advertising cut-off Stabroek News had argued that the government could not be cavalier about how taxpayers’ money was expended and that the readers of SN were entitled to see taxpayer-funded ads in the same manner as the readership of the Guyana Times – no matter how small – is entitled to do. It had also contended that the apportioning of ads should be done on the basis of the paid circulation of the various newspapers and their readership. It had further posited that the task of distribution of state ads should not be entrusted to a unit susceptible to political pressure and ensconced within the Office of the President, but to a professional advertising agency. These positions remain unchanged.

The Declaration of Chapultepec ends with an appropriate quote that all patriotic Guyanese here and abroad should take to heart. “The struggle for freedom of expression and of the press is not a one-day task; it is an ongoing commitment. It is fundamental to the survival of democracy and civilization in our hemisphere. Not only is this freedom a bulwark and an antidote against every abuse of authority, it is society’s lifeblood. Defending it day upon day is honoring our history and controlling our destiny.”
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1 Comment To "GINA ads and press freedom"

#1 Comment By bull#%@# detector On June 1, 2009 @ 7:23 am

Crony capitalism at its worst. Thank you for getting me really pissed off on a Monday morning

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