An increase of online attacks against journalists in Guyana is raising red flags: 5 questions for Nazima Raghubir, Caribbean journalism leader

April was a difficult month for women journalists in Guyana. At least three of them were victims of different types of attacks, including online harassment, intimidation, and direct insults. Violence against journalists in that Caribbean country often comes from politicians from both the party in power and the opposition. Or, anonymously, on social media accounts linked to political forces.

On March 31, the president of the country, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, held a press conference where reporters were compelled to sit among an audience that consisted predominantly of Ali's party supporters. Reporters faced heckling and verbal intimidation when posing questions about sensitive topics. One of them was Davina Bagot, a journalist from the private newspaper Kaieteur News, who questioned the president on his energy policies. In the following days, she encountered harassment coming from a Facebook page, allegedly controlled by people close to the party in power.

According to the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), posts on that Facebook page were an attempt to discredit Bagot, by insinuating that she had had an extramarital affair with an opposition leader, and that she was behind online troll accounts targeting pro-government posts. “I am worried about my safety, my career, my life,” she said, according to the organization.

A few days later, on April 19, reporter Tamica Garnett, from the State-owned newspaper The Guyana Chronicle, was insulted over the phone by a member of the main opposition party when she was trying to ask for an interview about a local government election.

Guyanese journalist Nazima Raghubir, president of the Guyana Press Association.

And one more of the recently attacked female journalists is Nazima Raghubir, who in 2018 became the first woman to become president of the Guyana Press Association (GPA) and this year was re-elected for a second term. She is also Vice President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and board member of the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC).

Raghubir was victim of cyberbullying and personal attacks on both State-controlled media and Facebook pages in recent weeks. She spoke to LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) about the situation for journalists in Guyana and about how these and previous attacks seem to be a deliberate campaign from the government to discredit press members personally and professionally.

The journalist also talked about other issues restricting freedom of the press in Guyana and other Caribbean countries, such as inadequate access to information laws, gender inequity in the media ecosystem, and citizens’ trust in the media.

For Raghubir, the increasing violence against journalists, together with the reluctance of politicians to interact with the press, are ways to silence reasonable questions that have to be made.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Recently, journalism in Guyana has been going through difficulties. That contrasts with the perception from the outside, that the Caribbean is a relatively calm region in terms of aggressions against journalists, compared to the rest of the Americas.

Nazima Rughabir: We and the Caribbean have always maintained that, while physical attacks and killing of journalists were not some of the immediate dangers and threats we face, there were other issues that really threaten our lives and our livelihoods. In Guyana, in particular, because media houses’ viability through advertising can be dictated by the government, it threatens the work you do and this would result in journalists even proceeding into self-censorship or leaving the profession altogether. Certain parties control even how the private sector spends their money. And if you are reporting in a particular way, your viability might be affected because no advertising or adequate advertising would come to you.

What we have seen over the years may not equate to what is happening in other parts of the world, like the Middle East and some parts of Latin America, but altogether they are threats and affect the work we do as journalists. Cyberbullying has really climbed. I have no statistics to give you but the fact is that there has been a complaint from all our journalists in the region, that on social media pages, Twitter and other social media, journalists are being singled out for their reporting and attacked, particularly women journalists.

I'm not pointing fingers at the government in particular, because it seems that most of the major political parties have pages like this. That type of atmosphere exists. It is sort of worrying because every time we have an election cycle, the media comes on to the spotlight as one of the challengers, even though we are not running in the elections. So media workers are constantly raising issues of different forms of attacks. None of it has been physical recently, but there's always that fear that when politicians single out reporters or single out news entities, they can actually prompt their supporters to take matters into their own hands and that is a fear.

2. As a result of GPA raising its voice to denounce these recent cases of harassment, you have been personally attacked. What has that been like?

I am concerned that since March there has been a targeted attack on me, discrediting me as a journalist. The government is generally not pleased with Guyana’s ranking in the RSF’s Press Freedom Index. [In 2023, the country ranked 60 out of 180, 26 places lower than in 2022].

We were being blamed for that. And if you know anything about RSF, they do not depend on one person or entity for their Press Freedom ranking. And anything that would have happened between March, April and May did not affect the Press Freedom ranking. RSF is very clear on how they acquire their information. It's both quantitative and qualitative. They speak to media, academics, civil society, and they have their own formats of monitoring.

However, the government seemed not pleased with the fact that we had condemned the heckling of the reporter [Davina Bagot]. So what I have endured since March was letters in the Guyana Chronicle, which is the State newspaper, that has political backing from the government, coming up against me and making the most defamatory, libelous statements. And the Vice president of the country attacking me personally and professionally since March.

It was a clear indication that it was an attempt to discredit me as a professional and as a journalist. Somebody who has been independent has been called anti PPP [People's Progressive Party], anti-government, pro APNU [A Partnership for National Unity], which is the opposition party, and all those types of things. I can only conclude that this was to really discredit me and the work that I do.

3. It seems that there may be a component of sexism in these attacks on female journalists. How is the situation for women in the Caribbean media landscape?

We still don’t have a lot of female editors, for instance. I don't have a lot of data on it, and different countries may vary, but we still don't have a lot of women leading media houses in editorial or management capacity. In Guyana, they're very few. And I know it has been somewhat of a conversation, but we haven't focused really on the gender gaps within the media.

And yes, since some time ago, the attacks on women in journalism are more frequent and women are more targeted with most of the nastiest types of social media cyberbullying. It's somewhat easier, apparently, to target us. I've seen things about me, I've seen things about my family. I believe that women are sometimes the ones who face the brunt of the attacks.

4. You mentioned the fact that some media outlets in Guyana are either owned or backed by the State. How does that affect the situation of freedom of expression and the Guyanese citizens’ trust in the media?

The country is divided and so the media is divided. So, you have a few independent agencies, but you have agencies with their own slants. There are entities that are solely being supported by the political party in government and there are others that are either supported or carrying the slant of the main opposition party. So, that obviously affects information, how information flows, and what the public is consuming from these agencies.

We’ve had like no major freedom of expression issues by a news agency because I think the public understands the division that exists between the media, and they could identify who they feel are independent and who are not.

What is worrying is that, for instance, some agencies don't carry the opposition at all. They don't carry any comments, any statements they make, the only stories they would do are those that cast them in a negative light, and that is a disservice to the public by itself. We've seen opposition members refusing to engage with certain media houses also, which obviously affects the information that gets to the public.

5. What do you think are the main challenges that Caribbean journalism faces nowadays? How do these things that are happening in Guyana are also repeated in other Caribbean countries?

We have raised over the years access to government officials and the pandemic has proven that it has been difficult to get the officials back to engaging with the media. They have resorted to hiding behind Facebook pages and radio programs, and Facebook Lives that only allow for one-way communication and that has been a challenge.

Also, there are issues with access to information in those countries. These countries have [access to information] legislation, but it is not journalist-friendly or public-friendly. There are still caps on information and how you can access that information. I think that really hampers the work we do here as regional journalists.

Some heads of states in the Caribbean go on two or three hours of rants on radio stations and stuff like that, but do not engage the media. We have raised this issue here in Guyana about the possibility of press conferences by our president Ali. The sideline interviews are not enough, the president should be meeting with the press as regularly as possible.

His ministers should be open to having regular press briefings and we haven’t even had post cabinet press briefings since 2020. That is usually a medium where the public is informed about what government decisions have been made. We are limited now to once a week press conferences by the Vice President, who's the general secretary of the party, just because we're heading into local government elections.

That is the type of reality that we are faced with. Access seems to be one of the major challenges.