Guyana’s Stabroek News last month marked the 20th anniversary of its first failed application to the government of the republic for a radio licence.
Other organisations in that country, however, have since successfully applied for electronic broadcasting licences. Until last year, a government monopoly on radio had been maintained by successive Georgetown administrations, even though the present People’s Progressive Party administration had been promising for years that they would allow radio stations set up by private interests. That promise was finally fulfilled—except that, virtually without exception, every successful applicant was connected to the ruling party and the government.
So the PPP has expanded the media in Guyana solely for the purpose, it seems, of increasing the outlets for pro-party, pro-government propaganda. Which does nothing but undermine media in that country. It is a general principle that any government which censors or controls the media does so in order to retain power and to hide incompetence and corruption. Recent research by historians, economists, and political scientists have added empirical validity to the principle that a free press is essential for democracy and, more generally, that democracy is essential for long-term progress—i.e. the provision of goods and services to the population. Countries like China and Singapore, which are not democratic, will in time demonstrate if these findings hold for all societies but, whether they do or not, they remain exceptions to the rule and therefore inappropriate models.
The PPP’s favouring of friends and family has been so blatant that the United States and other foreign Governments have officially protested the discrimination displayed by the Guyanese Government. On World Press Freedom day, the government sought to defend its limited and biased freeing-up of the frequencies. But the rest of the world—and no doubt most Guyanese who are not blind PPP supporters—recognised the reality of continuing State control of Guyana radio airwaves which, despite pious protestations, has changed only so much as the administration has wanted. It is ironic, if not indeed tragic, that the PPP, which represents a constituency which for decades suffered similar censorship and discrimination from the late and unlamented Forbes Burnham, should now have adopted some of his tactics.
In this context, it must be noted that the US, the United Kingdom and other nations have little moral authority to criticise Guyana, given their historical role in putting Burnham into power. The same is true of most Caribbean governments, who never condemned his dictatorship. Such diplomatic silence must not remain the rule in this 21st century, however, and the Trinidad and Tobago Government should add its own voice to the critics of such glaring efforts to deny free expression in Guyana.