Freedom fighter

By Nicholas Laughlin

David de Caires, 1937–2008

On Saturday 1 November, 2008, as news spread of the death of Stabroek News publisher and editor David de Caires, tributes poured forth in Guyana and across the Caribbean, from dozens of his friends, press colleagues, politicians, and ordinary people.

“He was a journalist’s editor-in-chief,” said his paper’s news editor, Anand Persaud. “He gave the optimum leeway to any story . . . There were no sacred cows, only facts and information that the public had a right and need to know.” “A fighter has fallen,” said the Guyana Press Association. “He brought to his journalism an utmost integrity and commitment to the truth and facts,” wrote the Jamaica Gleaner. The Trinidad Guardian called him “a man whose promotion of open discussion . . . created from the potential of Guyana’s tentative embrace of democracy, a deeper grasp of its realities and responsibilities.” Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo — whose criticism of the newspaper in recent years has been harsh and tangible — said, “The Stabroek News came into being at a critical time in our history when we were still under undemocratic rule . . . it helped to open up the country to other views and in some way to restore freedom to this country.”

And one tribute de Caires might have particularly appreciated came from an anonymous commenter at Living Guyana, one of Guyana’s politics blogs: “The fact that Stabroek News under de Caires’s stewardship was roundly condemned as ‘biased’ by both sides of the political divide while in power, speaks volumes about his, and the paper’s, objectivity.”

Guyana in 1986 was on the brink of change. The year before, President Forbes Burnham — who for twenty years had ruled over rigged elections, political repression, a fettered press, economic breakdown, social bankruptcy — had died unexpectedly. Yet another suspect election at the end of 1985 kept Burnham’s successor, Desmond Hoyte, in office. But now, under pressure from other Caribbean leaders, and perhaps considering what history would think of him, Hoyte quietly began undoing some of Burnham’s more repressive measures. At this pivotal moment in Guyana’s history, David de Caires made a critical intervention: with the help of his wife Doreen, a small group of close advisors, Ken Gordon of the Trinidad Express, and a grant from a US aid agency, he launched the Stabroek News, the first full-scale independent newspaper in Guyana in over a decade.

The story of the paper’s early years is told, scrupulously and concisely, by Anna Benjamin in her 2007 book Freedom of Expression and the Birth of Stabroek News (2007). The publication of the first edition, on 21 November, 1986, was a crucial breakthrough, a chink in a wall of lies and silence. It was one of many changes in Guyana’s political landscape that led, finally, to the return of democracy and the free elections in 1992 that brought Cheddi Jagan to power.

His entire life to that point had prepared de Caires to make this intervention. He had a firsthand understanding of the challenges of press freedom, from his experience — alongside his law partner Miles Fitzpatrick — defending the Catholic Standard against libel charges, pro bono. His own love for publishing dated back to the New World Fortnightly, the landmark journal he edited for fifty issues from 1964 to 1966. He had a clear-eyed perspective on Guyanese politics and deep connections with Guyana’s battered intellectual class; a fierce hope for his country’s future and a fierce devotion to principles of liberty and democracy. He was fiercely independent, with an ethos of duty, humility, and service instilled by his Jesuit education. And, it should not be forgotten, he had the good sense to marry his wife Doreen, who as general manager of the Stabroek News swept logistical obstacles out of the paper’s path with her practical instincts and sheer strength of will.

At the end of the Burnham era, the Guyanese people were hungry for truth, after a long diet of propaganda. The Stabroek News gave them vital information about the state of their country and the actions of its rulers, but it also advocated fairness, responsibility, accountability, decency. In Guyana in the 1980s and early 90s, this was risky business. Some might say it remains so. The newspaper’s scrutiny of the PNC government under Hoyte turned, after 1992, into scrutiny of successive PPP governments under Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Samuel Hinds, and Bharrat Jagdeo. After the 2006 general election, stung by the paper’s unflinching coverage, Jagdeo’s government decreed a ban on government advertising in the Stabroek News — a major financial blow. The ban lasted a year and a half, and was met with protests from the regional press and international media organisations.

It took a heavy toll on de Caires, but he did not budge from his position of principled independence. The paper faced down Jagdeo’s government, and survived. The best and most apt monument to David de Caires — to his moral courage and untiring intellect — still runs daily off the printing press and into the hands of his countrymen.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.