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Equatorial meets digital: Online journalism in Guyana

July 21st, 2010 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Online Journalism

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at Coventry University. Writing from Georgetown, Guyana for Journalism.co.uk, he takes a look at the South American country’s media landscape.


In London it is all too easy to get swept along by the tide of digital mania. Too easy to think the future of our craft is all tweeting, Facebook, citizen journalism and all the buzz words of the recent news:rewired sessions.

But what is the digital reality here in the Third World? It is limited, to say the least. Communication is still mostly about chopping down trees and spreading ink on them. The four nationals here don’t really ‘get the net’. They put their editions up on the web after publication and leave them there for a day. No updating and very little interactivity. Where news is concerned, the web is a static platform here.

One man is making some headway though. Former employee of state radio station GBC Denis Chabrol has created a multi-platform site, Demerarawaves.com, with a radio programme and some text, plus Facebook and Twitter sharing tools. Chabrol still has a long way to go however, his efforts are still based on a weekly radio programme and daily text alerts. He can scoop with the best though – this week he revealed that the president had sold his recently built house to the man who does his election advertising for a substantial profit. But a story like that that needed the full internet works and it didn’t quite get it.

It is on the blogs that Guyana comes closest to facing the future. The country’s blogs are satirical and they are political – so much so that at least one Guyana media critic has been driven out of business by the government. Today, at least three survive: propagandapress.wordpress.com; ohguyana.blogspot.com; liveinguyana.blogspot.com. With varying degrees of success they dig and they lampoon the Jagdeo/PPP government and various public officials. They are, though, too often a melange of half-truths, viciousness and malice. I suspect many are edited outside Guyana.

The bloggers here are also very coy about breaking cover. Under strict conditions of anonymity, I managed to obtain an interview with ‘Nelly’, one of the founders of propagandapress.wordpress.com. She and her colleagues see their purpose as “propaganda for the masses”:

“Fodder for intelligent asses as our slogan says. Guyana is a fucked up country and we want to see changes. We want an end to state sponsored murder. We want an end to privatisation of the country by PPP Crime Family & Friends Inc and soon.”

These bloggers do not necessarily follow strict checking of story sources and facts, it all seems a bit laissez faire in fact.

“Some things don’t need to be checked. Once our agents operating behind enemy lines send in certain things, we don’t need to check it because they’re putting their lives on the line to get some of that info.”

And what about their effect on the country’s polity?

“That’s hard to say as we do not know at this time. We know people like James Singh, CEO of Canu (the custom’s anti-narcotics unit), and others wake up daily panicking at what we’re going to say next about them as we have moles in Canu. As far as our impact on political/cultural life of Guyana that’s still to be seen. Until our flagship was hacked, we were getting six to eight million hits a year. That’s since dropped tremendously but we are building bigger, better and stronger. We’re here to stay!”

It is difficult to predict how long some of these bloggers will last. They will persevere at least until the national and presidential elections in 2011, when they hope their work will culminate in the ousting of the Jagdeo/PPP party.

Image courtesy of Douglas F. on Flickr

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Trinidad’s tabloids scream loudly, but Barbados’ press could do with some balls

July 24th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Newspapers

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV. Previous posts looked at the Caricom Summit held July 2-5 in Georgetown. Trinidad and Barbados were the final stops.

After experiencing Guyanese ‘journalism’ during the Caricom summit, any order is better. In Trinidad, there is much economic prosperity due to oil and natural gas: ‘What recession?’ they ask here. The economy is healthy but the society has some of the fissures of Guyana.

Trinidad politics
Indians were brought here in thousands as indentured labourers to replace the freed black slaves one hundred and seventy years ago. They live in the south of the island, the African Trinidadians in the North. They have much of the wealth, the prime minister and his ruling PNM party are black and have the political power.

There is much violent crime – especially kidnappings and murders – and that is the staple fare of the super tabloids who make up the Trinidad & Tobago newspaper market. The Guardian, the Express and Newsday are much the same. Screaming headlines on the cover but much content inside. They are big in pagination and include lots of classified ads.

Politics gets a big shout and through that the racial dimension. The leader of the opposition (at the moment) Basdeo Panday is Indo-Trinidadian. He was prime minister until 2001 but was driven from office for alleged corruption. Today his UNC is breaking into bits.

His former attorney general Ramesh Marhaj is leading a ginger group/internal opposition within the party together with another MP – Jack Warner, who runs football in this part of the world, is vice-chair of FIFA and has been the subject of critical investigations on British TV about his dodgy behaviour in that job.

Warner’s son sold the travel packages and tickets for Trinidadians to the to the 2006 World Cup. Panday wants Warner to account for $30m (T&T) of election expenses. Warner says it was money he gave the party so no need to account. This makes the British MPs look tame.

Columnists abound on the pages of the T&T press. Different races. All have views. Many far too prolix for the page. Sub-editing is not a craft that seems to have been found in the Southern Caribbean. But the three dailies and the local TV news programmes – sadly also divided on racial lines – make for lively reading and listening. Crime sells. They certainly put the fear of God into the bank manager cousin with whom I was staying.

Keeping awake in Barbados
Not so Barbados. The problem here for a journalist is keeping awake. The best description for the Barbados Nation and Advocate? Stodgy, boring, dull. They make the Bedworth Advertiser look interesting. Boring headlines and even duller stories. It is like reading a parish newsletter for a nation.

The ‘news’ is based on government news conferences and other press conferences by NGOs and the like. On such sexy subjects like polyclinics, insurance and diabetes. Again, writing is prolix and not of great quality.

Barbados is a very polite and ordered society (the murder rate is a fraction of Trinidad’s) and that shows in its press. The hacks need to get themselves some more balls. The TV news is not much better.

There we have it. Prosperity, tabloid culture, Little England and the news values of British suburbia. Funny how they all travel. But Blighty calls.

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It’s no use having a platform if you have no customers. Full stop.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV. His last posts looked at the Caricom Summit held July 2-5 in Georgetown.

As one door closes in the media, another opens. The trick is to spot whether the train leaving the station will crash or make it to the new destination. British newspapers and others are standing watching the various emerging platforms wondering which ones to accept and which to reject.

Some are dithering and may die. Imagine you are the editor of the Coventry Evening Telegraph facing steadily declining sales. Do you boost them on a  new web platform, do you throw your resources, mainly journalists, at that platform? Do you try to revive the traditional paper? Or do you give up the ghost?

For the last two and a half weeks, I have witnessed, here in Georgetown, the death of one platform and the rise of others. The Plaza Cinema in Camp Street is, or was, right opposite my hotel. It was a Georgetown institution when I was a boy.  A huge art deco cinema which played the big films. I saw ‘Ben Hur’ there over 50 ago as a young boy.

There were five or six big cinemas in the town which provided entertainment for the masses especially at weekends. Films came from Britain or the USA a few weeks after their release there. Each town and village on the coastal plain had a small cinema too. The films they showed varied according to the ethnic group of the area.

Indo-Guyanese village cinemas showed Hindi films with English subtitles – early Bollywood; the African Caribbean diet was Hollywood. Cinema was part of the very fabric of life. The cinemas supported a daily full page advertisement in the local papers.

Then along came television. Most of it illegal – stealing from satellites and from video shops. Copyright was for the birds. They showed anything and everything. When I pointed out to one transgressor that the film he was showing on his TV station clearly said on screen ‘For Home use only’, his retort was instant: ‘I show it in my home, they watch it in theirs. What’s wrong with that?’ Iron logic. TV stole the cinema audience. People preferred the comfort and safety of their living rooms to the trip into town where cinemas were old and often smelt of bodily functions.

The illegal DVD trade took up any slack (last week within twelve hours of it happening live in LA, I could buy a DVD of the Michael Jackson Memorial Service in Georgetown market). The cinema platform firmly died first in the villages, then in the town. There were fewer and fewer ads in the paper.

Three weeks ago, part of the art deco facade of the Plaza fell down. It had been closed for two or three years now. That was followed by an army of scavengers who, day and night, over two weeks literally stripped the place of anything worthwhile.

Timber went first, taken away in scores ofdray carts (horse drawn carts) to pastures new to make new or improved houses in which to watch films on TV or DVD. It was like watching ants taking food from one place to another.

Now all that is left of the once great Plaza is a breeze block back wall and some steel pillars. The human scavengers have like locusts left just the shell. If ever I wanted a real-time demonstration of the death of one media platform and the rise of another, this was it.

In the not-so slow death of the Plaza Cinema in Georgetown lie big lessons for those trying to ride the tiger called the internet.

It’s no use having a platform if you have no customers. Full stop.

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This is Georgetown but it could be Westminster: journalists hunt in packs wherever they are

July 8th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Events, Press freedom and ethics

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV. His last post looked at how summits bring out the lazy side of journalists.

The herd mentality is alive and well and living in the sun. I’ve just seen it at the Caricom (Caribbean Community) Summit (July 2-5) of 14 Presidents and Prime Ministers with the Caribbean media. A pack without teeth. The government of Guyana established a very slow accreditation system and a media centre in the conference venue. But the media centre was a broiler room. Up to 20 hacks, computers (usually working), tea, coffee and confusion.

The highlight of the day was often lunch, with the President’s press secretary presiding over just who got fish and who got meat. Big decisions. He and others in the communications team at the Summit did precious little briefing, precious little spinning in advance, or even ex post facto. That was left to the principals and usually in impromptu corridor press conferences where they were waylaid by journalists. The worst sort of herd mentality. One hooked the prey while the others piled in, often not knowing what questions to ask, but not wanting to miss out on the action. A journalism flash mob with plenty of heat and not much light. The leaders love this. They can bluff on a wide variety of subjects for several minutes to feed morsels to the hungry hacks.

Away from the pack, the masters of journalism. None bigger than Rickey Singh. Sitting typing in the corner of the media centre. Thousands of words over three days for his outlets in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados (where he lives) and his native Guyana. He is a one-man Caribbean press corps and the institutional memory for the travelling correspondents covering the Summit. Any historical or other questions they ask Rickey out loud. He knows all the answers. He has lived them.

Rickey has been to virtually all the Summits since the founding of Caricom. After 40+ plus years as a journalist, often against the odds and the subject of official displeasure, there are no new names and faces for Rickey in the Caribbean. Just watch him in action, prowling the corridors of power at a big event like this. No media scrums for him. As he walks around casually, his name is all. The powerful stop him and talk to him. Now, that’s contacts and working them. Rickey pumps out news, features, opinion, the works from his corner position in the Summit newsroom. The ultimate freelance, the ultimate journalistic craftsman.

For many Guyanese journalists, a little knowledge is enough. The big issues they leave to politicians and their prolix communiqués. The hacks take what they are offered, too often with little or no deep questioning. Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson was given a very easy ride in a press conference he called after facing criticism for an exercise in ‘ethnic cleansing’. It’s not a pretty sight to see how easily young journalists can be kept happy.

There we have it; experience against naivety, age against youth, solo against the pack. This is Georgetown but it could be Glasgow or the Westminster lobby. Herds don’t need cold weather to exist.

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Reporting from ‘the EU in the sunshine’ where hacks are hunting in packs

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV.

Summits bring out the worst in hacks. Lazy journalism by design. You arrive, get spoon-fed information, report it and then leave. You get fed and watered too. No need for digging, no need for investigation.

The Caricom (Caribbean Community – think EU in the sunshine) Summit, which opened last week here in Georgetown, Guyana, is no exception. Fifteen regional leaders and distinguished others from all round the world propelled at speed by police outriders all over the Capital City to a brand new Conference Centre. They ‘meet’ for three days to discuss the pressing issues of crime, security, economy and more in the region. But, like all summits it is a sham. The team have long been at work preparing the final communiqué. One person told me minutes after the end of the Opening Ceremony last night that the final communiqué was done and dusted – just crossing the ‘T’s’ and dotting the ‘I’s’ left to do. Where is the journalism in reporting that charade?

But the 60 or so journos from all over the Caribbean who are here go through the motions. The Guyana Government has set up a press centre in an anteroom of the summit to feed regular morsels to the hungry hacks. They run on the spot, faithfully file and come back for more. The herd instinct in action.

There is one real story at this talkfest. The Prime Minister of Barbados, David Thompson, is it. He is a pariah in the Community as it heads towards integration. He wants to clear his Little England island of illegal Guyanese immigrants. His police round them up early morning, interrogate then and so far 53 have been dispatched South in two months. Caricom is supposed to be about the free movement of labour. Thompson held a bizarre press conference on arrival in Georgetown. Local journos failed to ask the right questions. But the ‘Bajan bans Guyanese’ story will run and run.

The local media hunt firmly in packs – whatever their race or the politics of their paper/TV station. At the ceremonial opening last night, the usual suspects were present. All corralled in the lobby or in one small room. All using the feed from the State broadcaster as their only source. Some of them will not file for a day or so. ‘Soon come’ journalism is common here. But how many of the Guyana Press Corps will have the courage to announce the opening as a non-story? Nothing really happened. Fifteen men in suits sat on a stage and listened to six of their number drone on for two hours. Sound bites aplenty there were not.

More to follow on the conference, which ran July 2-5. Over the weekend, the Premiers and the Pack headed off to the Chinese built Conference Centre to go through the elegant quadrille that’s called ‘reporting’ major summits. Me – I got hold of a copy of the final communiqué and sat beside a hotel pool reading it and reporting it. If you are going to be lazy, do it right.

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Guyana: Four daily papers and 20+ television stations but a poor standard of journalism

June 29th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Broadcasting, Comment, Journalism, Newspapers

Regular Journalism.co.uk contributor John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University and the inventor of the Coventry Conversations, now on iTunes U. He was born in Guyana and returns there regularly to observe and advise the local media. His nom de plume in Guyana is Bill Cotton/Reform.

I am at one of the frontiers of modern journalism: Guyana in South America, but of the Caribbean. Most things go here. Four daily papers and 20+ local television stations feeding the news appetite of the 750,000 population. Journalists rank just above dog catchers as a trade in Guyana. At least the latter get some training.

Over here there is a university course in ‘Public Communication’ but little else to fine-tune wannabe hacks. The best and brightest go north drawn by the bright lights of the USA and Canada, like many others in their country. Newspapers are still sold on the streets by vendors on commission. The four on sale range from the supermarket tabloid Kaieteur News to the urbane Guyana Times. Kaieteur is the baby of local shoe shop entrepreneur Glenn Lall. Brash, vulgar, full of crime stories with some challenging columnists (including me behind a nom de plume).

It hits the popular mark as nearly does The Stabroek News, a paper instrumental in bringing democracy back to Guyana in 1992 after a period of dictatorship. Its guiding light, the Caribbean media giant David Decaires, died last year. The paper has lost some direction since. It is worth looking at though – for the letters column alone. A national Conversation tree but one which is prolix. Working out which letters are genuine makes for a fascinating read. Both major political parties (the PP and the PNC) and racial groups (Indo and African Guyanese) employ specialist correspondents to support their positions under a variety of noms de plumes (I am not alone in my anonymity. It is a Guyanese tradition).

Third in the press race is the Government-controlled Daily Chronicle. Cynics dub it The Chronic or The Daily Jagdeo in honour of the now second term President Bharrat Jagdeo. If a government minister speaks, they report it. If the President does, it hits the front page. The masses have not gone for it in thousands, nor for the new kid on the block for the last year, The Guyana Times. Intelligent, erudite, semi-broadsheet and the brainchild of a pharmaceutical baron Bobby Ramroop. It is well-written if stodgy, but at a level way beyond the literary level of the mass of the population. The Guyanese middle classes are now not here but in Toronto, New York and Miami. They read their papers on the internet.

The big action is on screen-in TV journalism. That is madness. Tout court. 20+ stations all stealing product from international satellites and re-transmitting it. The Guyanese journalism content ranges from the vulgar-local poujadist and station owner CN Sharma, the soi-disant ‘voice of the people’ with oppositional news shows like ‘Capitol News’ and ‘Prime News’, to the ‘Chronic’ of the airwaves NCN and its ‘Sixo’Clock News’ – which I invented a decade ago. The latter is news on the station owned by the Minister of Agriculture (and President manque) Robert Persaud and makes few pretences to impartiality.

Few of the TV journalists have any training. Few stay in the job for long. Few ever work out what the medium means. They think relaying a press conference with a few links is a ‘story’. More than one over several days if they can spin it out as they get paid per piece. Wallpaper is too kind a word to describe their use of pictures to tell tales.

So there you have it. Poor journalism by under-trained hacks. But all will change later this week when the heads of the Caribbean Governments come to town for their Annual Caricom Csummit. They bring with them the cream of the Caribbean Press Corps. That should be an intriguing piece of media anthropology in action. I will be there.

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A tribute to a brave Guyanese newspaper editor

January 19th, 2009 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Newspapers

John Mair, television producer and associate senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University, shares his thoughts on David De Caires, the Guyanese newspaper editor who died last November. A memorial service was held in the UK on Friday.

David De Caires was a Great Guyanese. His death – last November 1 – robbed Guyana of a brave and noble editor and publisher. The Stabroek News lit the beacon of press freedom, since followed by the likes of the Kaieteur News.

Last Friday in London, his second home, his life was celebrated by his family and the great and good of the UK diaspora in a memorial service. The group that the late President Hoyte once disparingly called ‘The Putagee Mafia’ were out in force.

An overcast London winter’s day. The spiritual headquarters of the Jesuits in Britain, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, Mayfair. This is the home of High Catholicism where sinners come to repent. Decaires, despite his Catholic education at the British Catholic Public School Stonyhurst, later became an agnostic. One hundred plus were gathered to celebrate his life and achievements and to pray for his soul.

The faces in the congregation were predominantly white. The Decaires family, including widow Doreen, daughter Isabel and her partner Michael Atherton the former England Cricket captain. It was a gathering redolent of a bygone age in what was known as ‘BG’. Two former British High Commissioners-Edward Glover and Stephen Hiscocks, plus Guyana’s long-serving (and soon retiring?) High Commissioner to London Laleshwar Singh among the congregration. Professor Clem Seecharan there too, to pay tribute to a fellow restless mind, the Rev Ivelaw Bowman, Canon of Southward Cathedral, to salute a fellow Guyanese.

The tributes paid were warm. Atherton in his deep Lancashire burr, Nick King in pukka English: an old friend telling tales out of Stonyhurst about the ‘Dec’s’ life-long love affair with the turf and betting. It cost him dearly. As a teenager, he refused  to apologise to a Bishop for hurrying a cricket innings so that he could hear the result of the Epsom Derby. He lost his first eleven cricket place at Stonyhurst as a result. He took up tennis instead.

That boy of principle became the man of principle three decades later when it came to setting up the Stabroek News and battling the PNC and later the PPP governments over press freedom.

David was a resolute life time fighter for that, defending it against attacks whichever direction they came from. Some think his final battle two years ago with the Jagdeo regime over the withdrawal of ads for the paper may have weakened his already damaged heart and led to his final demise.

David would have enjoyed his memorial service. Warm words, Miles Davis reverberating through the huge church, friends old and new meeting and ‘gaffing’ as they say in Guyana plus a dash of high Catholicism. Not a bad epitaph or memorial to have for a life of such great significance for Guyana.

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