We should not be silent: Speaking out against the July 2 Guyana Chronicle editorial
Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column
Today’s column, written in response to the dangerous and hateful editorial (the Roman Catholic Church was right to call it reckless) that appeared in the July 2nd edition of the Guyana Chronicle with the title “Opposition rampages to sow disunity in the country,” and which sought to portray African-Guyanese as pathologically violent with an ingrained hatred of Indian-Guyanese and mindlessly manipulated by opposition politicians (cannon fodder was the term used), has been one of the more difficult columns I have had to write in recent years. I have had to deal with a range of emotional responses this past week: anger; disbelief; disappointment; more anger; and a deep sadness that just will not go away. At first I told myself that to engage the racist arguments made in the article would only be participating in re-circulating its offensive content. Then I realized that although the article has been removed from the Chronicle’s editorial page, it can still be found in the newspaper’s online archive, and has been reposted numerous times on other sites and social media networks. It requires as many responses as possible, and we should be inspired by those who have spoken out publicly so far to say ‘Not in My Name’. Far more of us need to do so now. Those who write letters to independent newspapers should also send them to the Chronicle, and should state explicitly that they have done this, so that we can get an idea of just how seriously the Chronicle takes its duty to carry responses to a matter that it has deliberately and irresponsibly put into the public domain.
The Catholic Church Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) was the first organization to publicly respond. In a press release of July 4, it reminded us that the laws of Guyana expressly forbid “conduct tending to excite or attempting to excite hostility or ill-will against any section of the public or against any person on the grounds of their or his race. This includes by written (including printed) matter.” For the JPC, the editorial clearly represented a “patent ethnic appeal” that “could encourage incitement.”
To get a sense of how other Caribbean readers might react to this story, I sent the Chronicle link to people across the region and the diaspora asking what they thought. Without exception, responses have ranged from bewilderment to shock. One colleague, who has lived in three Caribbean countries and has a background in media, described it as a “deeply partisan and inflammatory editorial…The broad-brush sociological assumptions about group behaviour, made without any apparent appreciation as to how loose talk and accusations might further deepen existing divisions are simply stunning…if this is a sample of what is on offer, then hope for serious dialogue across the ethnic divide is further away than I imagined.” Another from the Eastern Caribbean with training in mass communication and who teaches at the University of the West Indies asked, “Is the Chronicle the newspaper of the ruling party? The editorial reads as though it is. I would have thought that a national newspaper had an obligation to be non-partisan and not to identify too closely with the party in power.”
I am no journalist, but when it comes to editorial copy, it would seem to me that key rules about the ethics of the process are generally accepted in most recognized news outlets. The general editor is regarded as the most senior journalist at the newspaper, placing her or him in a leadership position not only for the newspaper but for the team of journalists working there. It follows that the highest standard of journalism ethics ought to be followed by this individual. And while the general editor does not always write the editorial, she or he must take final responsibility for whatever goes out under the heading. The editorial is not a column to be taken lightly; it joins the popular discourse of the day on whatever ails the body politic. A taxpayer funded government-run newspaper has an added burden of demonstrating better judgment and restraining itself on such explosive topics as the one so vulgarly addressed in the Chronicle’s July 2 issue. When an editorial begins to articulate such a poisonous view of the political and the everyday life of the country, it forecloses informed debate on matters of import, and opens up the space for crude, unreflective, divisive and deeply uninformed discussions of an issue, race, that has a long, vexed and ugly history in Guyana. This type of diatribe will never move us forward or take us to a place where we can address all of our fears and hopes for our futures. It threatens to return us to a time that pitted neighbour against neighbour, rural against urban, people of Indian descent against people of African descent, making these two groups stand in for a country that is decidedly more complex and diverse.
It took five days for the Guyana Chronicle to issue a public statement, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was the growing outrage that finally provoked a response. Still, better late than never, and it shows the importance of speaking up and speaking out; it goes without saying that there simply has not been nearly enough of that on this matter. In its July 7 issue, Board Chairman Keith Burrowes apologized “to all the persons both locally and overseas who may have been offended or affected,” and stated that disciplinary measures would be instituted against the Editor, the author of the editorial and anyone else associated with it; Board resignations are also likely to follow.
This is a commendable step and we wait to see how this public accounting will play out, but there are also lingering inconsistencies. The Chronicle’s editor, Mark Ramotar, has so far been silent (at least one report has indicated he will issue a statement later this week). And a July 6 Chronicle article took a very different position from Board Chairman Burrowes. Covering a demonstration outside its gates, the Chronicle concluded that it “cannot please all of its readership all of the time,” and described the editorial as a “regrettable slippage.” Most incredibly, while the report insisted that the Guyana Chronicle was committed to national unity, it refused to retract a single sentence of the editorial. How are we to reconcile these two positions appearing a day apart, in which Chairman Burrowes emphasizes that the publication in question does not represent “the majority shareholders, the board [or] the management and staff of Chronicle,” while the newspaper itself adds insult to injury by stating that the racist content of the editorial was “well-intentioned and factually correct?”
Moreover, given that the Chronicle is a state-run outfit, whose operations depend in no small measure on Guyanese taxpayers, how are we to interpret the official silence, thus far, on this matter? In a remarkable statement, Juan Edghill, former Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission, disagreed with the JPC, reportedly remarking that “Out of my experience at the Ethnic Relations Commission and the tools that we would have used to analyse statements in the past, the fact that it’s being reported in a manner in which it was reported, I don’t see the editorial as seeming to want to incite or excite.” As Mr Edghill currently occupies the position of junior minister within the Ministry of Finance, one cannot be faulted for concluding that the official position sees nothing wrong with the line taken by the editorial. Presumably, then, the government endorses the view that unless proven otherwise (as the editorial says, “innocent, clean-living black youths are just as suspect as the perpetrators as a result of the difficulty to tell the difference between a criminal and a decent person”), we can assume that African-Guyanese will voraciously prey on Indian-Guyanese, that African-Guyanese youth are conditioned by the political opposition to have “hatred of Indians…ingrained into their psyche.” It was hard not to think of these damaging stereotypes when I came across a July 4 Stabroek News article, in which Prime Minister Sam Hinds, rejecting accusations that the reduction of the electricity
subsidy for Lindeners was political, reportedly stated that “…for us, Africans, there has been too much of a propagation of this idea that we are depressed. The point I’m making is that – in my view – is that in our black communities there is constant propagation that we are depressed and dispossessed…The people all over Guyana need to use their brains and arms to make a living.” So we have a junior Minister who sees nothing wrong with the views expressed by the Chronicle, and a Prime Minister who would have us believe that African-Guyanese do not use their brains and arms to make a living. Perhaps we should say that unless proven otherwise, and without some public pronouncement, the Guyanese public should assume that this is where the Government of Guyana stands on this matter?
Elsewhere, I have written that as Guyanese, “we need to ask hard questions about why we collaborate in ways of seeing each other that simply reproduce the old colonialist, caricatured and racist versions of ourselves.” In next week’s column I will return to this issue, in order to explore an important point made by the press release of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, that “words used in the editorial seek to castigate another race and in fact [are] condemnatory of one race to convey a particular message.” The difficult but necessary question we must turn our attention to is this: Whose interests does the Guyana Chronicle editorial of July 2 ultimately serve?