Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Paying Tribute to Ric Mentus, Caribbean Journalist

Memorial Service - Port of Spain, Trinidad, September 25, 2013

One of the most striking features of the assignment that brought me here this morning was the revelation that tracing the life and career of our late colleague could not possibly be engaged as a simple linear exercise devoid of an understanding of both Ric’s life and the times in which he functioned as a journalist.

As I set out on this journey, I found that unraveling Ric’s place in the scheme of things is more like negotiating Wilson Harris’s hinterland excursion of the Palace of the Peacock than sitting through the 55-minute Caribbean Airlines flight between Piarco and Timheri.

What is absolutely clear is that his career spanned a very long time, touched several shores washed by the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and never really enjoyed the luxury of many quiet professional moments, except perhaps for the latter years leading into what appeared to have been a solitary existence, during which he no doubt compulsively tuned into the ups and downs of both his original and adopted Caribbean homelands.

These homelands included Jamaica in the early 1960s where he worked with the Jamaica Daily News. He would later report for the Trinidad Guardian, People Magazine and then the Trinidad Express where he formed part of a formidable journalistic team.

By the time I entered the Express picture in 1985, Ric had already left, to re-emerge not long after as a stoic, state information official, press releases in hand and at the ready with firm press conference instructions for younger entrants to a profession he clearly loved and respected. If I ever had to entrust anyone with a secret - with all my possessions on the line - Ric would have been among the primary candidates for such a job.

But this is not to say that he did not maintain a strong appreciation of the demands of journalism and was a stuck-up guardian of what some considered to be proprietary state information. On more than one occasion, I hereby confess on his behalf, he would answer a probing question with a question of his own which, when one thought about it carefully, pointed in the approximate direction of an answer.

This respect for the practice of journalism came from years of sacrifice at its hands. In fact, when Ric returned to Guyana from his early stint in Jamaica and some time in Trinidad, he occupied the office of Sunday editor of the UK-owned and operated Guyana Telegraph. He was known then for his hard-hitting columns focusing mainly on the increasingly contentious and often deadly political environment. Those were the heady days of an administration which came out of elections in 1973 with a disputed 70% of the vote and a hold on power many thought would last for a very, very long time, if not forever.

Of course, such open dissent by journalists of that time was not to be tolerated. That very year, Ric and his near namesake and lifelong friend, Rickey Singh, were summarily dismissed by the Telegraph. The newspaper bosses were quick to declare in the termination letter issued to Ric that he had been fired as editor of the Sunday Graphic because the paper had apparently “lost its editorial balance while carrying out a policy of hostility directed against the government.”

Ric, the letter said, had not displayed “sufficient tolerance and understanding of government’s policies.”

Had he stayed in Trinidad where he remained en route from Jamaica in the late 60s, he would have probably had to interpret the events surrounding the emergence and quick decline of an insurgency in 1973. Had he returned to Jamaica, he would have had to reflect on an economy in rapid decline and the advent of Michael Manley’s socialist experiment.

As a correspondent for Caribbean Contact which his fellow colleague-in-exile, Rickey Singh, led first from Trinidad then from Barbados, Ric helped frame greater public understanding of the circumstances of a region in transition.

There was no way at that time, operating as a journalist committed to full editorial independence, Ric could have escaped the perils of his trade wherever he considered to be his home, including the land of his birth.

Born on Wakenaam along the Essequibo and with homes in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, Ric’s credentials as an island man remain intact.  Sadly, not many members of the ACM community of recent vintage however know the name very well, if at all. Ric’s work, after all, was not about him.

We pay tribute to him today as a man of the Caribbean and a man of the world. The Guyana Press Association has asked that its condolences be extended at this time and those Guyanese colleagues who remember him at the Graphic recall his obstinate insistence on ensuring that his work would not be compromised by political or other reward or penalty.

There is perhaps a message in the method of his passing that can be of interest to all of us who talk with crowds and keep our virtue; who walk with kings and prime ministers and keep the common touch. It is a message of solidarity – a commitment to simply keep in touch. An injunction to care.

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