June 16, 1999
Bad journalism has always been with us and always will be. It springs from a variety of causes, the rush to meet deadlines, the wish to sensationalise a story, to dig the dirt whether it is there or not, a lack of knowledge which leads to a limited understanding of or perspective on the issues involved, bias, political or otherwise, and in general a failure to respect the basic principles of hearing all sides and striving for objectivity that are essential to good journalism. All media are guilty of it from time to time, some more frequently than others as they reveal a consistent bias in the choice of news that they highlight and the way it is handled.
Good journalism, like good law or good medicine, is not easy to practice. It requires a great deal of time and hard work, attention to detail and a high level of professional commitment. It is something one aspires to achieve, and ideally it is a process that gradually develops with years of experience, paying one's dues in an effort to earn the respect and trust of the readers. It never comes easy, the road is hard and narrow.
But that is not what we have in mind today. We wish to discuss the fostering of racial hatred which is taking place on at least one television station on a regular basis and the dilemma this poses for those who believe in free speech.
Freedom of expression is protected by our Constitution, subject to various exceptions, by Article l9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Guyana subscribes. Article 20 of this Covenant expressly provides that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence must be prohibited" and we have laws that may make some kinds of racially divisive speech illegal. But putting aside legal or criminal implications the ultimate issue free speech advocates face is whether the right is absolute or whether it should be limited to exclude pornography and hate speech.
It is a real dilemma. As Ursula Owen, the editor of Index on Censorship, noted in an article in that magazine in l998 on the hate speech debate entitled "The speech that kills" the advocates of free speech believe that all speech should be allowed however vile or offensive. They believe that "dialogue and democracy are more effective tools in understanding the anatomy of hate than silence; and for that reason freedom of expression is necessary". She quotes Ronald Dworkin who argued that free speech is what makes people feel human, makes them feel their lives matter. A fair democracy requires, he contended, "that each citizen have not just a vote but a voice: a majority decision is not fair unless everyone has had a fair opportunity to express his or her attitudes or opinions, or fears or tastes or presuppositions or prejudices or ideals, not just in the hope of influencing others, though that hope is crucially important, but also just to confirm his or her standing as responsible agent in, rather than a passive victim of, collective action".
That is the ultimate credo of the free speech idealist. But, she asks, and this is the editor of a magazine devoted from its birth during the cold war to opposition to censorship, can these arguments stand in the light of the monstrous events caused by hate speech in this century. She gives a quotation from the US philosopher and political scientist Sidney Hook: "I believe any people in the world, when roused to a fury of nationalistic resentment, and convinced that some individual or group is responsible for their continued and extreme misfortunes, can be led to do or countenance the same things the Germans did. I believe that if conditions in the US were ever to become as bad psychologically and economically as they were in Germany in the l920s and l930s, systematic racial persecution might break out. It could happen to the Blacks, but it could happen to the Jews too, or any targeted group".
She continues: "Another important witness to the deadly mechanisms which seem so readily to transform neighbours into murderers is the Serbian novelist and Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric. Here he is, in his epic novel The Bridge on the Drina, written in Belgrade during Hitler's war, in the days of the Nazi concentration camp at Banjica, and the public hangings in Terazije, reflecting on what happened to his world after August l9l4: `People were divided up into the persecuted and those who persecuted them. That wild beast which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free. The signal was given, the impediments eliminated. As so often happens in human history, violence and plunder were tacitly permitted, even killing, on condition that they could be perpetrated in the name of higher interests, under set slogans, and on a limited number of people, of a definite name and persuasion'".
Our TV station talk show hosts do not know the demon they are playing with. Once loose from the bottle it is very hard to get it back in. Guyana is close to the brink of serious ethnic conflict, the least they can do is to stop trying to push it over. Dialogue and constitutional reform are efforts to deal with the problems rationally and sensibly. This sort of gross, if not criminal media irresponsibility can destroy all these efforts. As Ms Owen says "Words can turn into bullets, hate speech can kill and maim, just as censorship can". That expression of hate on television today can be responsible for a murder in six months time.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples