Journalist’s murder 8 years ago still exemplifies risks and impunity in Guyana, reporters say

By Larissa Manescu

In Guyana, journalists avoid putting their names in bylines and media outlets share and publish their original investigative pieces simultaneously to further protect reporters from violence, according to an International Press Institute interview with Julia Johnson, the founder of Guyana’s Prime News, and Bert Wilkinson, the AP Guyana correspondent.

IPI conducted the interview with the two media professionals to discuss the case of Ronald Waddell, a journalist who was gunned down outside of his seaside home eight years ago, in honor of International Day to End Impunity last month.

At the time, Waddell was working on exposing the actions of a government death squad involved with the disappearance and killing of about 400 young people.

According to Johnson and Wilkinson, it is believed that Waddell was slain by that same death squad, a phantom gang founded by now convicted drug and arms dealer Shaheed Roger Khan.

In a trial that charged Khan’s U.S. lawyer Robert Simels with witness tampering and obstructing justice four years ago, the prosecution's witness, Selwyn Vaughn, introduced revealing testimony that linked Khan and his phantom gang to Waddell's killing.

Vaughn, a former member of the phantom gang, testified that he served as the look-out the day four members of the squad – all former members of the Guyana police force - shot Waddell, according to daily newspaper Kaieteur News. After the shooting, Vaughn said that Khan called and told Minister of Health Dr. Leslie Ramsammy to order the doctors treating Waddell at Georgetown Public Hospital to let him die.

Vaughn is now a part of the U.S. Witness Protection Program, but his revelations haven’t been used to bring justice to Waddell’s case, according to Johnson and Wilkinson. The pair said that the police in Guyana stated that the evidence could not be used unless Vaughn swore to the information in a local court, and have since failed to conduct an investigation despite media pressure to keep the case alive.

The information provided by Johnson and Wilkinson shows a clear link between gang violence and authority figures in the Caribbean nation that still exists to this day, causing journalists reporting on corruption to be extremely wary about attributing their work.

Last year, IFEX featured Guyanese writer and human rights activist Freddie Kissoon in its campaign for International Day to End Impunity. Kissoon received retaliation for writing critical commentary pieces, including being fired from his lecturer position at the University of Guyana, his wife losing her job at a state-owned company, losing a $40,000 libel suit with former Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo and having human feces thrown at both him and his wife.

In an August 2012 opinion piece for Kaieteur News, Kissoon wrote, "I may be the second most molested victim of state oppression in post-independent Guyana... My concern is for my life. Could one day this relentless pursuit of me, end in my murder?"

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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