ST JOHN’S, Antigua — A war of words seems to have erupted in Antigua and Barbuda between Prime Minister Gaston Browne and a local newspaper, the Daily Observer, which is now available online only, having last week published its final print edition in the midst of dire financial constraints.
Also last week, the Observer published an editorial that Browne described in a press statement as “seeking to blame the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) for its difficulties”.
The Observer quoted a paragraph from a Caribbean News Now editorial on the subject of attacks on press freedom:
“While we may not face the same rhetoric as US media, domestic regional news outlets in particular do face politically motivated attacks, ranging from threats of defamation lawsuits (including criminal libel in some jurisdictions) to economic pressure by the threatened or actual withdrawal of government advertising, all of which leads to self-censorship that is inimical to the concept of a free press enshrined in most, if not all, national constitutions.”
Nevertheless, according to Browne, the Observer Media Group (OMG) is the author of its own misfortune and “reaped exactly what it sowed”.
“The fundamental problem at OMG is mismanagement. For example, OMG’s payroll is extremely top-heavy with several members of the Derrick family drawing executive salaries from the company. It is difficult for any private media organization to maintain such large family payroll in such a small advertising and promotional market.
“Instead of casting false aspersions on myself and others, the Derricks need to un-burden OMG with such a huge family payroll to ensure its sustainability and to change its vitriolic, politically stale programming, to whatever will attract greater listenership and support,” he said.
The decline in reader support of the Observer has been attributed by some to OMG abandoning its self-proclaimed mandate to deliver unbiased news and information in favour of an anti-government agenda to the point that it is now perceived as no more than an opposition mouthpiece, thus alienating a large part of local readership.
Its financial situation has also been compounded by a dispute between the estates of Winston and ‘Fergie’ Derrick over control of the company since Winston’s death in 2013, ten years after the death of his brother and business partner, Fergie.
Browne also asserted in his statement that “OMG principals met routinely with a former US political officer in Bridgetown and embellished their fake news which was reported uncensored to the US State Department. The latter treasonous behavior made OMG a liability to the state, a sentiment I have personally articulated.”
The Observer described this allegation as “absolutely untrue” and a “doozy of a fabrication”.
“As a matter of fact, no OMG principal in the current management team has ever met a political officer in Bridgetown; let alone routinely. Further, we have never consulted with the US State Department on their reports,” the newspaper said.