Guyanese government considers IPI argument against criminal libel
IPI also deeply concerned over allegations of discrimination in broadcast licensing
By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
PARAMARIBO, SURINAME, April 22, 2013 - The International Press Institute (IPI) last week presented its view to leading Guyanese government officials that criminal defamation laws are an affront to the values of a democratic society and should be repealed.
In a meeting with IPI delegates, Attorney General Anil Nandlall expressly agreed that journalists "should not go to jail for practising their craft," and pledged to prepare a memo on the issue for the country's cabinet. Nandlall added: "I cannot see the utility of having something in the law that is not used," indicating that no Guyanese journalist had been charged with criminal libel in recent times.
Additionally, Gail Teixeira, adviser on governance to Guyanese President Donald Ramotar, told the delegation that while she could not make a specific promise, the government was "not opposed to changing it [criminal libel law]."
"While we would have liked a more concrete commitment from the Guyanese government on the repeal of criminal defamation and though we anticipate that the process of repeal will take some time, I am satisfied that the country's top officials generally agreed with our position," said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, who led the mission. "I believe that the generous welcome and level of access we received are indicative that the current government is not averse to addressing press freedom shortcomings in Guyana."
Bethel McKenzie emphasised that IPI stands ready to help the government expedite the repeal process, and highlighted the 2012 Declaration of Port of Spain, which calls on all Caribbean governments to abolish criminal libel and insult laws. IPI also presented the attorney general with a legal analysis of Guyana's criminal libel law prepared by Dr. Anthony Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies at Indiana University.
Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, IPI's strategic partner in the region, added: "The ACM is thankful to the IPI team for the very productive mission conducted in Guyana last week, in collaboration with the Guyana Press Association under the guidance of ACM executive member, Bert Wilkinson. I believe this invaluable work will go a long way in helping us as a press freedom community to properly dissect the challenges we face and to fashion appropriate responses."
Notably, the Guyanese opposition coalition, which currently holds a majority in the National Assembly, was broadly more supportive of repealing criminal libel. "You have my instant support," Khemraj Ramjattan, leader of the Alliance for Change (AFC) party, stated to the delegation.
The IPI delegation encountered two additional, significant issues during its visit to Guyana: widespread claims of media irresponsibility, and allegations of government discrimination in the awarding of radio and television licenses. Numerous Guyanese editors and journalists told IPI they consider the latter to be the most serious violation of press freedom in the country.
A number of media outlets -- including broadcasters Capitol News and Prime News and print media Stabroek News and Kaieteur News -- have not been granted licenses, in some cases without explanation for more than 16 years. Some editors of those media, which are popularly referred to and/or demeaned as the "opposition press", accused the government of purposely denying them broadcasting rights because of their perceived political position and their sometimes critical reporting on government issues.
"While IPI was previously aware of allegations that broadcast licenses have been unfairly distributed in Guyana, our visit revealed the full depth and gravity of this issue," Bethel McKenzie stated. "It is unthinkable that the license applications of certain media have been delayed or ignored for nearly two decades. This practice clearly clashes with international standards on broadcast rights. We call upon the newly constituted Broadcast Authority to immediately undertake a speedy, fair, and independent review of any outstanding license applications."
Bethel McKenzie added that IPI, together with its regional and international partners, was now following the broadcast licensing debate in Guyana very closely.
During its visit, IPI delegates were repeatedly confronted with assertions that the Guyanese press, both state and private media, often failed to adhere to ethical standards. Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, in particular, insisted to the delegation that the private media in Guyana tended toward "premeditated distortion" that "maximised the social problems in [Guyanese] society."
On the other side of the political spectrum, Brigadier David Granger, chair of the opposition A Partnership for National Unity said he and his party had "frequently been defamed by the state press." Granger also noted that the state media was often the only source of news and information in Guyana's sparsely populated interior.
The IPI mission to Guyana was led by Bethel McKenzie; John Yearwood, The Miami Herald's world editor and IPI North American Committee chair; and Scott Griffen, IPI press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. IPI was joined by Bert Wilkinson, ACM executive member in Guyana, as well as representatives of the Guyana Press Association (GPA), including GPA President Gordon Moseley, Enrico Woolford, and Nazima Raghubir.
As part of the mission, Bethel McKenzie led a workshop for Guyanese journalists on investigative journalists techniques, an activity IPI plans to repeat in the near future.
Guyana was the second stop of IPI's six-nation visit to the Caribbean, which began last Sunday in Antigua and Barbuda. The delegation will also visit the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and Curaçao. A comprehensive report on the state of press freedom in each country will follow.