Avoiding Public Scrutiny: The Politics of Fear and Intimidation

Alissa Trotz is the editor of the
In the Diaspora column.

Last week Sunday the PPP held a rally in Kitty kicking off its election campaign. Both President Jagdeo and his presidential adviser on governance, Gail Teixeira, referred directly to the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide, implicating journalists from Kaieteur News, Stabroek News and Demerara Waves who President Jagdeo referred to indiscriminately as vultures and carrion crows.

What a way to start a campaign. Other newspaper editorials and letter writers have commented on how the President engages in public pronouncements that are little more than ‘cuss down’ affairs (ironically, when a young man, perhaps copying the kind of behaviour he sees coming from those in high office, allegedly raises his middle finger at a presidential convoy, he is jailed for some two weeks). The President’s reference to vultures and crows is doubly interesting. First, these are both scavenger birds, raising the question of who has caused the corrupt and decaying body politic that they are now looking for? Secondly, it is perhaps unfortunate for our sitting president that there is a well known Guyanese proverb, ‘No matta how high carrion crow fly, he muss come down fuh dinner.’ This saying seems to be less applicable to local journalists than it is to a party that proclaims itself as champion of the working class, yet whose parliamentary representatives voted unanimously to produce a presidential pension package in which according to some reports President Jagdeo (at age 48) will take home some three million tax free Guyanese dollars a month (USD$15,000) compared with G$7,500.00 (roughly USD$37.50) going home with the average Guyanese pensioner. This is not counting all the other benefits he will enjoy, a point that this diaspora column has, on four previous occasions, addressed.

In this respect, we should ask how the attacks on those the current administration perceives to be their critics, deflect attention away from substantive issues. If you can monopolise the airwaves and manipulate the media, you can control the information that Guyanese people receive and that will help shape their decision come election day. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in this case the carrion crow of the Guyanese saying is trying hard not to come down for dinner.

It is important to see the comments at last Sunday’s rally in a wider context, one that includes the apparent reluctance of PPP/C presidential candidate Donald Ramotar to engage in a debate with the other candidates. The reported remark by PPP/C campaign manager Robert Persaud, that the other candidates would gain popularity if they stood next to Ramotar in a debate, is the most ridiculous reason I have ever heard given for not participating in a political forum of this magnitude. Persaud, in declining the invitation by Merundoi extended to the PPP/C, also reportedly noted that “due to the late notice and the busy schedule of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic campaign, the PPP/C’s presidential candidate, Donald Ramotar nor any of our senior leaders will be able to participate at this time.” Presumably time was not the issue when early in September the presidential candidate also turned down an invitation by the University of Guyana Workers Union (UGWU) to participate in a debate with candidates of the three major parties. Then the reason given was that Mr. Ramotar had been previously asked to take part in a similar event put on by the Faculty of Social Sciences, although in fact the Faculty had planned no such debate.

We assume that all of the parties stand by their manifestos. One mark of such confidence – and which demonstrates respect for the electorate and their right to have all the information before them – is to meet each other and have one’s ideas and one’s record tested and put to public scrutiny. Given that the PPP/C has found reasons to decline all invitations so far, perhaps we should call on them to organise a presidential debate, make its terms clear, and invite the other political candidates to participate. Then they cannot blame anyone for setting them up in an environment that puts them at a disadvantage.

This wider context includes the closing down of Channel Six. At last Sunday’s rally that suspension was revoked until after the election, a clear result of the domestic, regional and international outcry that the decision provoked. Not surprisingly, the backpedalling was described by party loyalists as the individual action of a generous and magnanimous president. This announcement, however, went hand in hand with stepped up attacks on the independent media, linking them with the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide.

It is absolutely important that we recognize the long shadow that party politics has cast, a shadow that has hung over Guyana and Guyanese for more than half a century. It is important to remember the violence that has recently accompanied past elections, most notably in 1997 and 2001, and which was documented in a report by the Guyana Indian Foundation Trust (GIFT). It is important to recognize all those who publicly stated that this violence was not in their names, including the women’s groups (as well as representatives of political parties) which in the run up to the 2001 elections publicly appealed to people for peace and justice before and after polling. It is important to name the fears and insecurities that our party politics have created in this country and among Guyanese in diaspora, fears that have served politicians well but which make it difficult for us to recognize ourselves in each other, particularly at election time.

This means that we must also be extremely vigilant in the face of those who would make what amounts to little more than an indiscriminate attack on the independent media of Guyana at this time. To refer to Rwanda at the launch of the PPP campaign, is a cynical move that invokes victims of a genocidal struggle (Tutsi and Hutu), this time only to sacrifice them again at the altar of political expediency. It allows the PPP to participate in the politics of division and tribalism, a politics that has also served them well, while appearing to disavow it themselves. It creates a climate in which the politics of fear replaces constructive and honest engagement. And this time it is the independent Guyanese media operatives who are vilified, who must be jailed, who are dirty birds that must be dealt with accordingly.

Dickson Eyoh, a professor in African Studies and Political Science at the University of Toronto, commented: “As someone who has worked in Rwanda, it was deeply disturbing to read of the way in which the massive human tragedy that claimed close to one million Rwandan lives, is being inserted into public discourse in an election campaign in the Caribbean. If the experience of genocide in the modern world has anything to tell us, it is that language that dehumanizes a group prepares such groups as justifiable targets of collective violence. Rwanda’s Tutsi were described as cock-roaches, despicable pests none of us will hesitate eliminating. It is frightening to contemplate a political discourse that casually and irresponsibly labels journalists or any group in society as vultures and crows in a charged political environment. We should consider how that political discourse in fact participates in precisely what it claims to criticize, revealing the power of language to incite violence.”

If we put all of this and more together – presidential candidate Donald Ramotar’s reluctance/refusal to debate, President Jagdeo’s attempt to shut down a television station that was already before the courts, verbal attacks on the independent media by the President and at least one of his advisors, the scaremongering, the reports of closed and invitation only PPP election meetings in diaspora cities like Toronto – it all points in the direction of efforts to close off any healthy debate that might possibly lead to a critical engagement with the current administration and governing party. But is also signals profound contempt for the Guyanese electorate. It is why the PPP could over the weekend issue a manifesto in 2011 and not have to contend with questions about how it contains promises made in the 2006 election manifesto that remain undelivered. It is why, on the eve of an election, house lots can be distributed to Lindeners while the presidential candidate can guarantee hundreds upon hundreds of jobs to a community that has seen livelihoods disappear and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Wha’ rain cyaan full, dew cyaan full. It is why, on the eve of an election, more elaborate promises are made to deliver sugar, despite the fact that as Khemraj Ramjattan said in Toronto at an AFC meeting last Friday, many ‘Skeldonians’ call the sugar factory there not even a white elephant but a dead elephant. We should follow the money now more closely than ever, across the country, into the hinterland communities, for in the absence of debate it will tell its own story.

Given that the ruling party refuses to open itself up to public scrutiny, we should all carefully consider the press release issued on October 11th by Gail Teixeira, Presidential Adviser on Governance, Office of the President, in which she defended the comments made by her and the President. The statement noted that “the Government intends to take steps to alert the United Nations on the threat that is being posed to peaceful elections by certain media houses and their operatives and call for an independent investigation.”

It is passing strange, given the urgency with which this whole business was raised in the first place, that we have heard nothing more on this matter. It is now 12 days since that release was issued and just about five weeks before general elections. Perhaps it has not been made public, but since it was at a PPP rally announcing the date of the elections that these serious accusations were leveled against sections of the media, the public deserves to see the official request that is being made to the United Nations (UN). After all, it is  supposedly on behalf of their interests as Guyanese that this intervention has been speedily promised. Otherwise one can only conclude that the attacks on the media were not what they claimed to really be about, after all. And if that is the case, then there is little one can say about the cynical use of a human tragedy, and of the Guyanese people, in this an election year.

Surely, if the independent media is so dangerous and has the potential to push Guyana to the brink as the PPP/C claimed for all to see and hear last week Sunday, then we should expect that this promise to go straight to the UN is one that will be swiftly kept. In the current climate in which any criticism of the powers that be is immediately vilified, as someone who edits a weekly column for one of those newspapers that has come under attack, and as someone who unequivocally rejects violence, I suggest that we should welcome the result of any international and independent investigation that looks at the conduct of all media houses, including the state-owned media, in the run up to the 2011 general elections. Since the government says it will initiate this international investigation, it cannot run from its findings.

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