World Press Freedom Day was celebrated yesterday, Tuesday under the 2016 theme “Access to Public Information”. I have found this year’s theme quite fitting in Guyana’s context, in addition to other countries.
Speak with any reporter locally and they would tell you that one of the hardest things to do is to get access to public information; even harder is trying to get that information from the persons or Ministers responsible for the public institutions. Further exacerbating that is the conduct of Government personalities and the contempt shown towards the populace and Journalists when their public portfolio comes under scrutiny by the press.
While it is understandable that Government figures in the remit of their work would have to keep certain amounts of information confidential, Ministers should also be more open and responsive to the media, especially where it concerns matters that are of interest to the public and those that directly affect the socioeconomic and political fabric of their lives.
It is hard to decipher if it is because of our cultural disposition or our socialisation, but, as a people, we are offended when public servants and Ministers withhold information or act clandestinely. However, after the revelations come out and die down, we forget all about them and move on, as if to say that we are accepting of them when, in reality, we should be pressing harder for the truth to come out.
For example, we are yet to hear a word from the Government on the actions of the Social Protection Minister who openly defended a party loyalist who on more than one occasion was allegedly involved in the sexual assault of minors. We kicked up a big ruckus about the entire incident and now it appears that nothing ever happened, even though the Government is yet to pronounce on the comments made by its subject Minister.
Under the previous Administration, another Minister in a drunken tirade called a reporter and allegedly made threats against that person. A media frenzy surrounded the incident, but that, too, after a while died down.
In contrast, a conglomerate of Journalists dissected a massive leak of more than 11.5 million documents, exposing the hidden wealth of the world’s elites. The stories carried under the “Panama Papers” tag have led to the resignations of, and legislative action being taken against, implicated Government officials in light of such revelations.
Without coming across as cynical, it is believed that if any of the information still emanating from the Panama papers implicates Guyanese, nothing would be done in the final analysis.
There was also the recent issue of press censorship on the part of the Prime Minister who was accused of interfering with the State media. The US State Department Human Rights report had stated, “The law provides for freedom of speech and press, and the Government generally respected these rights. (However, in regards to censorship and restrictions), in August, the Prime Minister issued a directive that all headlines in the State-owned print media be first scrutinised and approved by his office before they are published. The directive was a response to a headline criticising the Government. The Prime Minister also serves as Minister of Information.”
The Prime Minister has since refuted the accusations levied against him and his office, citing that “allegations of censorship in State media have no basis in reality or fact.”
It was only after receiving criticisms from NGOs and the Press Association of Guyana did the President respond – not to the issue, but in general, saying that his Administration was committed to “non-interference in the independent media” and his “Administration will not undermine the professionalism of State media workers by subjecting them to political direction or interference in their work”.
We, as a people, have to start casting aside our parochial approach in the body politics of governance and become more participatory, demanding that our elected office bearers uphold their constitutional mandate of accountability and transparency towards us. If not, then “Access to Public Information” will become a closely guarded secret and the least of our worries.