One might have thought that the annual ceremony at Babu John to commemorate the 12th death anniversary of President Cheddi Jagan would have been a time for sentiment, gentle reminiscing and inspirational addresses. After all, the person remembered on this annual occasion was not just the least vindictive and vengeful of men, but the one credited with conceiving the vision for his party. But not for the first time a discordant note was struck, with President Bharrat Jagdeo launching into a diatribe notable both for its lack of restraint and its bellicosity.
While the Babu John site has seen at least one splenetic performance from the head of state before, on these previous occasions there was an election looming. This time, the national polls – although possibly not the local ones – are more than two years away, and in Guyana, mercifully, the campaign season never starts so far ahead of election day. However, Mr Jagdeo is showing all the signs of being under pressure: his last press conference on Clico was not the most temperate or even businesslike of briefings, despite the asseverations to the contrary by GINA whose claims are contradicted both by the video and the audio record. It was this media conference, incidentally, which appears to have triggered the invective at Babu John.
With problems in all the major industries in this country (not all of which can be laid at the government’s door, it must be said); a major recession in the industrialised world, which despite the head of state’s earlier optimism inevitably has its repercussions locally; and the Clico debacle, Mr Jagdeo has more than enough to cause him stress. And when his reaction to criticism is to allege that the real problem is not the administration’s decisions, but reporters who distort the facts to make the government look bad, then one can reasonably conclude that he is under very great stress indeed.
It is not that reporters are always without fault; no one is, although this newspaper tries to correct errors. However, for the record we will repeat what was said earlier, namely, that our reporter (we can speak for no others) asked legitimate questions at the President’s press conference on Clico, and as we’ve said on many occasions, we strive for objective, balanced reporting. But that is not the point. The government controls the entire radio spectrum; has a TV station which broadcasts for longer hours than those stations which might be regarded as reflecting an ‘opposition’ stance; controls one newspaper, has the benefit of a second which is generally perceived to be largely sympathetic to it; and runs anonymous columns in a third. It is not short, therefore, of outlets to get its views across to the public, and present an image to make it look ‘good.’
So if after all of that, in the President’s view the administration still looks ‘bad,’ then for some reason he must think that the public is not taking the government’s position at face value. At Babu John our report quoted him as saying, “I get so frustrated sometimes at press conferences; I guess it is the ignorance that comes out. What I am frustrated about is that these are the people who have to educate the people…” Well perhaps he underestimates ‘the people,’ and that they need a great deal less ‘educating’ than he gives them credit for. In the days of the Burnham government, ‘the people’ knew very well how to read between the lines of the Chronicle. Suffice it to say that they still do. And they certainly do not need to be ‘educated’ that they should ignore all signals indicating their immediate interests are directly under threat, and that they should accept unquestioningly the paltry information on the Clico issue they have been fed by official sources.
And as for the reporters to whom Mr Jagdeo was referring, they are asking questions to which the public wants answers. And in a democracy they are entitled to answers to reasonable questions. One wonders too, why he targeted the reporters, rather than the editors, who are ultimately responsible for the content of a newspaper. One hopes it is not to intimidate the former, and inhibit them from asking awkward questions in future. The job of a responsible press is not to confine itself to the government’s comfort zone; that is to produce propaganda, not to report.
While the President referred to some reporters as the “new opposition,” by far his most reprehensible remarks were reserved for the ‘old’ opposition – in this instance, the AFC. He alleged that a major financier of that party was implicated in the ‘cocaine in pepper sauce’ case. This was not just a most extraordinary statement, but also a most improper one. Either the head of state has access to indisputable evidence of this allegation, as opposed to rumour, or he does not. If the latter, then his behaviour would be disreputable in the extreme. If the former, then he would have no business announcing it at Babu John, unless the matter was in the hands of the police, they had investigated it and charges had been laid.
As it is, AFC Leader Raphael Trotman told the media last week that no one involved in the 2006 election campaign had received money through the illicit trade in narcotics, and the party had written to the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit and the DEA requesting that an investigation immediately be conducted into the President’s statements. He went on to say that the executive and members of the party would be prepared to assist in the conduct of the investigation, including undergoing a polygraph if Mr Jagdeo was willing. In any case, as AFC MP, Mrs Sheila Holder pointed out, one of the four priority issues on the party’s parliamentary agenda was electoral financing. One would expect that in the light of his accusations, Mr Jagdeo would have an interest in promoting legislation to make financing for all political parties more transparent, among other things.
But that was not all. The head of state also raised the matter of US consultant Dick Morris who had assisted the AFC in the 2006 campaign, and accused the party of funding him with money from unlawful means. This too is a most astonishing allegation. The question about Morris had been raised at the time, and he had stated then that he was providing voluntary service. As Mr Trotman observed, how come nearly three years later Mr Jagdeo is resurrecting this canard. Again, if the head of state has solid evidence to the contrary, then Babu John is not the place for it; Eve Leary is.
Presidents normally are meant to stand above the fray, not grub around in the trenches slinging mud. The declared view of the AFC is that the President is trying to create a diversion from the Clico fiasco. Well if he is, it will hardly be a resounding success; there is no amount of mud directed at the opposition political parties which will distract the public from the implications of Clico, because their livelihoods are involved. As it is, the President hasn’t taken on the PNCR yet, although it has adopted a similar line to the AFC. Be that as it may, what the President might find more helpful at this stage is a sober, measured tone (even at press conferences), and a greater degree of candidness with ‘the people’ on the Clico issue than he has managed hitherto.