The impact of COVID-19 on broadcasting and journalism has been immense. Outlets around the world have been forced to rapidly adapt their operations while trying to meet the new demands of an extraordinary time. But for media outlets in Guyana, there has been an added burden: the country held general and regional elections on 2 March, with results yet to be announced.

By Desilon Daniels

Now, more than 130 days later, there have been no results and no clear winner.

As a number of countries gear up for their own elections in the year ahead, we take a look at Guyana and how its public broadcaster, the National Communication Network Inc. (NCN); public interest media house, the privately-owned Stabroek News; and the local press association have navigated the double burden of covering a controversial nationwide election and an unprecedented global pandemic.

Navigating COVID-19

NCN is regarded as Guyana’s only public broadcaster. NCN Channel 11 and its three national radio stations provide nationwide coverage while the broadcaster’s eight regional radio stations allow typically unconnected communities an opportunity to stay in the know. NCN receives a government subvention as a state entity, but also operates commercially by accepting advertising and paid programming. Its management therefore emphasises that it has a dual identity as both a commercial and public broadcaster.

While Guyana can be found on the South American mainland, its historical and cultural backgrounds are akin to those in the Caribbean. Like other broadcasters in the Caribbean, NCN has seen an impact on its operations due to COVID-19. But these changes – ranging from new approaches for newsgathering to adapting how they interact with officials – have also been seen in the private media.

NCN’s Programme Manager, Andrea Bryan-Garner, told Public Media Alliance (PMA) that the broadcaster has risen to meet the new broadcasting demands of COVID-19 as best as possible. NCN broadcasts daily COVID-19 updates, freely aired public service announcements and programmes such as virtual panel discussions, and even a new animated children’s mini-series called the Quintin Quarantine Quartet. The broadcaster also hosted a Crush COVID Concert with local artists with the aim of keeping the public entertained while they observed stay at home orders.

“We’ve had to adapt in order to work remotely and change the way we deliver our content, especially online,” Bryan-Garner said. “We had studio lockdowns to safeguard the health of our staff and guests and clients so most of our interviews had to be done virtually and staff equipped to work from home. New innovative ideas were brainstormed, and we found ways to troubleshoot challenges as they arrived. It was a new situation for everyone to be in, locally and globally, but NCN was able to be ahead of the curve as we’ve been testing ways of virtual broadcasting even before the pandemic to tap into interviews with the Guyanese diaspora. The bright creative minds of our innovative staff also found quick software and hardware solutions to allow us to operate in new ways.”

Read more: The impact of COVID-19 on local news in the Caribbean region

However, despite its strides, NCN’s navigation of the pandemic has not been without its missteps. Bryan-Garner explained that NCN did not have the resources to equip all its on-air staff to work from home and instead had to rely on some staff using their personal resources. In cases where personal resources were unavailable, staff had to forego working from home, which presented its own transport-related challenges for the company. Bryan-Garner added that those at home also experienced issues such as “slow internet connections, power outages, malfunctioning equipment, connectivity issues and, of course, not having a dedicated home-work space so they were prone to distractions, interruptions and background noise.”

In the newsroom, NCN’s Acting Editor-in-Chief, Onicka Jones, shared that there were similar challenges. She said there has been the natural challenge of physically accessing public officials, with an upsurge in interactions through video conferencing platforms. She said that, positively, access to members of the political opposition had increased as a result of the new approaches to newsgathering.

“…It has always been difficult for the state media to confirm interviews with members of the opposition. Their use of the social platforms has made the information accessible to all,” Jones said. She added, however, that virtual access limits follow-up and ultimately limits the stories one can tell.

NCN’s newsroom has also faced the challenge of finding balance between the COVID-19 measures and employees’ adaptability to the new rules.

Aside from the obvious technological and physical changes, personal fears of working in the field led to an imbalance in workloads according to Jones: “We’ve also had to deal with employees being fearful of having to leave their homes during the pandemic. There were cases where staff members were overworked because of their ability to operate remotely while others stayed home due to their limited skills.”

“We’ve also had to deal with employees being fearful of having to leave their homes during the pandemic. There were cases where staff members were overworked because of their ability to operate remotely while others stayed home due to their limited skills.”

At the smaller public-interest news house, Stabroek News (SN), its Editor, Andre Haynes, reported much of the same difficulties seen at NCN.

SN first published in November 1986 with a public-interest mandate in mind. In its first ever issue, its policy stated: “We do not see ourselves as crusaders except perhaps for the cause of a free and independent Press and a strong and self-confident citizenry”. Today, SN dubs itself “Guyana’s most trusted newspaper”.

By the time the pandemic hit in early March, SN had close to a dozen editorial staff at its disposal. Haynes commented to PMA that COVID-19 put a strain on the newsgathering process and on staff. Approaches, he said, had to be changed in how journalists could access information while staying safe. “There’s only so much you can do from a distance and we’ve had to rely on secondary channels, which isn’t always ideal.”

SN also had to provide PPE to its staff and implement a rota system to allow some journalists to work from home. However, Haynes said, the latter approach has proven more difficult to implement due to the increased workload emanating from the 2020 general and regional elections, which required some staff to be present in office.

COVID-19 has also affected the types of stories SN produces, as seen with NCN. Haynes said that stories naturally became COVID-centred with traditional focuses such as court reporting becoming infrequent due to the suspension of court sittings. “It just became trying to get a grip on how the virus has affected most areas of society. We, for example, do a weekly educational supplement which thankfully may have served that purpose in terms of ensuring that learners have access to educational information,” Haynes said.

However, unlike the state-financed broadcaster, which has more financial and human resources at hand, SN has had to grapple with meeting its public interest mandate while managing precarious finances. Even NCN has seen its bottom-line suffering due to a sharp drop in revenue as advertisers experienced the impacts of COVID-19. In response, NCN’s Sales & Marketing Department have offered price reductions to retain advertising clients and paid programmes.

Similarly, SN noted a decline in its advertising revenue. Haynes added that SN is in the unique position of charging more than its other daily newspaper competitors, a decision that had been taken by its management in response to state advertising being cut last year.

Haynes explained that SN was priced higher than its competitors and, as a result, there was a responsibility to produce a minimum quantity of content. “That was obviously a struggle because many days you do have a lot of space to fill and you then need to adapt your content to address that reality. We have ended up running PSAs and stuff; for a long time, the frontpage was dedicated to [World Health Organization] posters, tips on COVID, and myth-busting.” He said that while there have been advertisements and content from both the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Education that have come about due to the pandemic, some of these are run unpaid due to SN’s commitment to providing important news to the public.

Both NCN and SN have ensured their staff receive their full salaries. In NCN’s case, this was done despite a reduction in the hours of work for some members of staff.

The broader media landscape

 The public broadcaster and the private public-interest news entity have always been differently positioned in the Guyana media landscape. The landscape, as a whole, is highly pluralistic and politicised, with both the government and the opposition often accusing media houses of political biases, whether these biases actually exist or not.

The public broadcaster admits that it enjoys greater access to public and government officials due to its state-owned status. NCN and the state-owned newspaper the Guyana Chronicle have long been accused of political bias in favour of the ruling party of the day. Under the previous PPP administration, it was frequently the target of accusations from the opposition. Today, the tables have turned and the then opposition – now ruling government, the APNU+AFC – is facing the same accusations it had levelled against its political opponents.

But accusations of biases are not limited to local actors; international organisations and observer missions have openly deemed state media as biased.

Most recently, in its election observer mission report, the European Union noted that the media environment is highly politicised with few independent news outlets: “The law does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the political independence of state-owned media and the broadcast media supervisory body, which failed to exercise its oversight role. The EU EOM media monitoring showed that state media were largely biased in favour of the ruling coalition, and most private media provided highly partisan electoral coverage in favour of one of the two main political forces.”

“The law does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the political independence of state-owned media and the broadcast media supervisory body” – EU EOM

Furthermore, the EU EOM put forward eight priority recommendations for the improvement of elections in Guyana and the state-owned media was targeted. It said that Guyana must “introduce a legal and regulatory system that transforms the state-owned media into a genuine public service broadcaster. This includes provisions granting editorial independence, financial autonomy, clear separation from any government institution, and an open and competitive selection process of its board members.”

 With the emergence of the Department of Public Information (DPI) under the APNU+AFC Coalition government, the media landscape has had an added dimension. The DPI was created to guard against the politicisation of public information from a party’s point of view, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo had said in 2017. He had also emphasised that, under the previous government, the state entity had functioned as a party propaganda instrument. Today, the state entity is highly sophisticated and operates largely like a news organisation: it produces news articles and video news content; it produces and broadcasts InfoHub, a news programme that can be watched on social media and television; it provides live broadcasts of parliamentary sittings; and also publishes regional newspapers. With a large and active social media following, the entity is a highly functional source of news on the government’s work and viewpoints.

However, the entity has come under fire for its clear pro-government stance and lack of independence. Most recently, in the 2020 general and regional elections, DPI was accused of “clearly misusing state resources”. The EOM report stated, “the Department of Public Information (DPI), a governmental agency, was extensively used to promote the ruling coalition’s campaign activities… This was done, for instance, through articles and videos published on its website and Facebook page, as well as via free publications distributed at regional level.”

Both Jones and Bryan-Garner do not view DPI as competitor. Rather, they consider the state entity’s work as an important source of government information. Noting that there are no challenges between NCN and DPI, Jones said the mandates of the two entities are quite different. She said, “Both entities, like other media houses, tend to share information due to a lack of or limited resources. This is usually helpful. There might have been other challenges between the two entities in terms of overall resource allocation but none that influenced elections coverage.”

Bryan-Garner added that NCN and DPI work in collaboration in the interest of public information.

“DPI is responsible for coverage of and distribution of government information as well as distribution of government advertising (bids, notices, vacancies, etcetera). However, NCN has the national platform through television and radio which allows that information to reach the public at large. DPI is not a national broadcaster, so we do not compete but collaborate to ensure public information is accessible nationwide, as per our mandate.”

The double burden

The wider media landscape has set the tone for how the individual media entities – whether public or private – have been treated during their coverage of both the elections and the pandemic. But the presence of COVID-19 and reported attacks on media workers has doubled the burden for news outlets.

In NCN’s case, Jones said that its main challenge in its coverage of the elections has been accessing information from the political opposition. “The main challenge during this election period has to do with access to information from the political opposition and the false belief that the newsroom is only representing the interest of the government of the day. This is not the case as there has been little to no interference in its operation by policymakers. Overall, the company has asked the political opposition to pay outstanding payment for advertisement before it is granted access to do the same during the elections; this could have further aggravated their ability to trust the network.”

Meanwhile, non-state entities have faced difficulties not only in accessing government officials, both in their coverage of the elections and COVID-19, but they’ve also had their health and safety threatened by attacks.

The Guyana Press Association (GPA), which represents various media houses, released two statements relating to the difficulties its members experienced in their coverage in March, both within days of each other.

On 9 March, the press association noted with concern “the degree to which media operatives are increasingly becoming the targets of attacks related to the ongoing post-elections situation.” The attacks, GPA said, included threats of violence against journalists on social media as well as attempts to interfere with media operatives’ work. On that occasion, GPA had to call on political leaders, state authorities, and interest groups to openly discourage acts which could undermine journalists’ work.

“We urge all political leaders to cease and desist from creating conditions for the perpetuation of media harassment and the dampening of press freedom,” GPA had said.

However, by 14 March, the situation had worsened: the press association this time condemned threats, verbal assaults, and attempts of physical assault on media workers in relation to their work covering the elections.

“The political leaders through speech and silence continue to bait and incite supporters to act against opposing groups and the media. During several opposition protest actions last week media workers were followed, taunted and insulted while doing their jobs as some political leaders even attempted to direct journalists on how to write their stories,” GPA reported. The GPA said the attacks – which escalated to journalists being blocked by crowds of political supporters and prevented from interviews – occurred in full view of the police and political representatives.

Haynes too said that he is concerned for the health and safety of his journalists at this time. He noted that SN’s difficulties covering the elections and COVID-19 go hand in hand. The entity, which prides itself on its editorial independence and balance, is not immune from accusations of political bias during the heightened tensions of elections. The EU EOM report deemed SN, along with its competitor Kaieteur News, as providing among of the most balanced coverage of the elections. Nonetheless, Haynes said, the politicisation of the media has led to general animosity towards the press.

Read more: COVID-19: Amplifying the threats to public media

“These attacks are coming from party supporters and to some extent some of them have been directed or have been stirred up by party members…There’s a callous attitude seeping down into rank and file supporters who then might on their own initiative then go after [journalists]. And it’s not limited to any one [political] party,” he said.

Haynes explained that he sees SN’s role during the pandemic and the elections as ensuring the public are informed with a true reflection of the situation and how it is impacting the citizenry. However, he said, this role is constrained by officials’ lack of accountability and transparency. He notes that while the pandemic provides understandable restrictions such as a physical inaccessibility, there is a level of political intent behind the limiting of proper Q&A opportunities. “Officials have more control over the questions they allow, and they can limit media houses to certain questions; they can pick and choose. It becomes more of a one-sided conversation where they are speaking to you as opposed to having that back and forth you might see at a traditional news conference,” he said. “I think part of that is deliberate and I think another part is a sort of incapacity of perhaps those in power to properly address the situation because I see this as unprecedented.”

Over the years, Guyana has improved its press freedom. In 2013, it was ranked 69/180 in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index; it is now ranked 49/180. However, RSF notes that legislation and media regulations that silence journalists and control who has access to the media landscape are still present. Clearly, there is still some way to go and journalists such as GPA President Nazima Raghubir are on the ground battling against increasingly difficult challenges to media workers. Raghubir has publicly spoken out against attacks on the independent press and the long-term consequences these can have on the media landscape and the public. She believes infringements on press freedom – such as the deliberate limiting of access to information – are ultimately a disservice to the media and the public.

The role of independent and public media, particularly during a pandemic and an election, cannot be overstated. The public are turning more to trusted media at these times to inform decisions regarding their health and the future of their country. Now more than ever journalists must be equipped with protections for their safety, independence, and sustainability in order to meet their mandate to inform, educate, and entertain. The Public Media Alliance will continue to support journalists and their rights, particularly as they navigate the extra burdens as seen in Guyana.

Header Image: Woman hands in latex gloves holding facial medical mask. Credit: klenova/istock