President Jagdeo was holding forth on one of his favourite topics on Thursday – post-independence Guyanese history. The forum was a gathering of young people at the Impress Youth Expo, who no doubt thought they were there to hear about what the PPP would do for them if it got back into government. There is nothing wrong, of course, with encouraging the young to find out about their history; in fact, it is a pursuit to be encouraged. But history is not Mr Jagdeo’s true concern; his fixation is with a fable, never mind that that fable incorporates strands of truth.
There were as expected the usual recitations about the banning of wheat flour and other basic food items under the PNC, and the absence of democracy during that era. “We have freedom today in this country,” one report quoted the President as saying; “no one gets locked up for criticizing the government, newspapers could freely publish, you have real freedom, people do not have to belong to a political party to get a job… This is the Guyana that we have come into; I want you to read about that era, because if you do not have a sense of how far we have come, there will be nothing to defend, because you will not see the progress made in this country.” His last statement was truly remarkable; which government in the world, one wonders, has to go back 26 years to compare with current conditions before people will notice that progress has been made. If what Mr Jagdeo said was indeed true, then it would be an admission that his administration had accomplished very little.
There are, of course, appalling inaccuracies in the President’s account of the past, especially since he is applying his generalities to the entire period between 1964 and 1992. One of the most obvious problems with this is that under Mr Hoyte who came to office in 1985, all the restrictions on the import of foodstuffs were lifted, for example, as were the various impediments placed in the way of independent newspapers. This paper, for example, had its genesis, not in the PPP era, but in the PNC-Hoyte era, while during that same period the PPP’s own organ, the Mirror, was allowed once again to import newsprint – as was the Catholic Standard – along with a new press which had been denied under Burnham. And as for the comment about jobs, while PNC functionaries in many positions still tried to operate in the traditional way, President Hoyte’s personal approach was altogether more open than that of his predecessor, and, it might be added, some of his successors. President Jagdeo should know this, since as has been observed before, he was employed in State Planning during the Hoyte era.
There is absolutely no doubt that the space for public debate under Mr Burnham contracted dramatically, although it was never entirely extinguished, and even under President Hoyte there were still sometimes difficulties. But to compare the lack of freedom in Burnham’s Guyana with what obtains today makes no sense.
This government after nearly two decades has to be judged, not by comparison with the events of a quarter of a century ago, but by whether this country under the PPP/C meets internationally recognized standards of freedom and democracy. But therein lies the problem; the ruling party and the government do not want to be judged according to international norms; they want to be judged against Burnham’s norms.
Since they are not to all appearances enthused about accountability, transparency and an uncircumscribed space for free expression, they have redefined ‘democracy’ to mean only free and fair elections (which are undoubtedly of prime importance but not the only litmus test for a healthy democracy), and ‘freedom’ to mean what obtains now in comparison with what obtained under their version of PNC rule. And in this exercise, ‘history’ has to be pressed into service as a “political weapon,” to borrow historian Fritz Stern’s phrase; a spirit of historical inquiry could not be further from their minds. In addition, of course, they psychologically resist the proposition that there cannot be a democracy without freedom of expression and a media unfettered by government.
It is true the ruling party has a Marxist-Leninist background, which may account for some of the contradictions in their approach to matters of freedom, and their substitution of fable for true historical investigation. However, there is nothing particularly Marxist-Leninist about President Jagdeo and his government, and even although the party ideologues make burbling noises about class and ideology from time to time, one has to ask what classes they are talking about. After all, the only bourgeoisie – their favourite whipping boy – currently in existence is the prado-bourgeoisie which this regime itself created, the old one having decamped eons ago to Toronto and New York.
While some of the inspiration for total control may come from a Stalinist mindset, one cannot help but feel that in other cases it derives from something more basic: power disease. Whatever its provenance, its consequences are there for all to see. The public hardly needs to be reminded of the denial of advertisements to this newspaper, presumably in an attempt to force it off the market to make way for the Guyana Times. This act was in direct contravention of the provisions of the Declaration of Chapúltepec, which President Jagdeo himself had signed. The ads were restored for a time with no explanation being proffered, only to be withdrawn again on spurious grounds, this time in company with all the private newspapers.
Despite all the promises made since 1992, the administration, Burnham-style, has kept its stranglehold on the only radio station in the country. A few months before it is due to demit office, it has finally brought a deeply flawed Broadcasting Bill to the House, which perpetuates government control by giving the President the power to appoint the chairman and all but one of the members of the governing board of the Broadcasting Authority. In addition, as pointed out in SN’s editorial of July 25, the bill contains an “uncomfortable amount of definition of what is acceptable and what should be considered as balanced.”
Whatever the demerits of the bill, it has in any case been made clear that no radio licences will be granted prior to the election – so much for open debate and democracy. In the meantime, Ram and Gaskin’s discussion programme has been pulled from Channel 6 under pressure from the authorities, it would seem, and so had Merundoi from the radio until an agreement was reached. NCN has still made no statement on the last-named matter, but this newspaper’s understanding was that the withdrawal concerned a voter education programme which carried the suggestion that young people should vote unity rather than race. If that is indeed the reason for the cancellation, it is very strange. The PPP likes to promote itself as the unity party, and many drivers will be familiar with the billboard showing a giant, avuncular-looking Mr Ramotar staring down at the traffic on D’Aguiar’s turn with the party’s unity message emblazoned next to him. Are we to conclude, therefore, that the party does not really believe itself to be a unity party, and/or that contrary to its claims it really does want electors to vote race?
While the radio remains blocked to independent viewpoints and operators, financial pressure is applied to the private media, and the state media generally muffles the voice of the opposition, the government has brought forth an Access to Information Bill – except that it will do precious little to give the public genuine access to information. As was explained in SN’s editorial of July 18, among its other defects is the major one that the Commissioner of Information, who has been given substantial powers under the proposed legislation, will be appointed by the President. Another case of retaining control while genuflecting to appearances.
And finally, there is the libel law, much abused by Mr Burnham, and still an inhibiting factor for editors. Jamaica is proposing to amend its libel laws, but there is no suggestion of that here. But even Burnham did not dream up the latest variation on the theme to which we may be exposed; that honour goes to Minister Irfaan Ally. One of his allegations is extraordinary, to wit, that Dr Roopnaraine in a remark, and this newspaper by reporting him, insulted Muslims – an accusation that is definitely a figment of Mr Ally’s imagination. But that is not the concern here; what is novel is the threat to sue a political speaker for libel over something he said on the hustings. All kinds of things are said on the hustings which shouldn’t be said, and the PPP should know this, because some of their members are major offenders. Inappropriate talk on the campaign trail should be strongly discouraged and rebutted, and where necessary referred to the ERC which has already rebuked President Jagdeo, but to start to invoke the law of libel to control what the opposition says, apart from inviting retaliation in kind, will restrict free speech and curtail democracy. Even the President might have difficulty accommodating that one within his version of history.