The crudeness of the current PPP/C efforts to appeal to voters has set a very low bar for campaigning. While the speakers at roadside meetings have never been noted for their sophistication of presentation or logic of argument, the crass and negative diatribe which is commonplace in that setting is not normally paraded in quite such an uninhibited fashion at major rallies. But now the roadside and bottom house have moved onto the public platform.
The scene was set at Babu John some time ago at the observances in remembrance of the late President Cheddi Jagan, when President Jagdeo delivered his now infamous ‘blood on his hands’ speech. A pattern then established itself which was followed at Albion, Kitty and Linden, whereby the head of state (usually supported by certain political lieutenants) launched into a malevolent tirade, while the presidential candidate, Donald Ramotar, remained aloof and made conciliatory statements. It is clearly a deliberate strategy to drive a negative campaign but at the same time not compromise the candidate that has been devised in Freedom House or the Office of the President or both.
There is another unusual feature characterising the governing party’s campaign this time around, and that is the targeting of selected newspapers and TV/internet stations. Of course, no party on the hustings has ever been shy about taking a swipe at this or that media house now and again, but for a head of state to campaign against specific media entities, because in his view they are the “new opposition,” and furthermore to employ such venomous language and adopt such a posture of malignity towards individual members of the press corps, is to debase the presidency and by extension, the nation he represents.
One curious element in this anti-media theme was the head of state’s remark at the Kitty rally that he hoped that some of the local media would be “tried and sent to jail by the United Nations.” The entities he identified in this general context were Stabroek News, Kaieteur News, Demerara Waves and CNS Channel 6. His theme was echoed by Presidential Advisor Gail Teixeira, who elaborated on the Rwandan experience, and compared the coverage of sections of the Guyanese media (who in her case were not named) to the role played by Rwanda’s radio in genocide.
This allusion, along with the President’s remarks describing certain media as “vultures” and “carrion crows” was condemned locally as well as internationally, but this did not prevent Ms Teixeira from issuing a press release specifically in response to the Guyana Press Association, in which she retracted nothing. She stated that the administration would be calling for an independent investigation into certain media houses who were posing a threat to the holding of peaceful elections, and that it intended to alert the United Nations on the matter.
Well all of this is quite extraordinary, since, as the Editor-in-Chief of this newspaper observed (among other things) in a comment following her statement, the 2006 election campaign had been largely free of inflammatory language. It might be added that where the current one is concerned, what inflammatory language there is can be laid largely at the PPP’s door. In fact, the Rwanda allusion drew an analogy which bears so little relationship to reality in the current media climate, that it trespasses in the realms of fantasy.
It is not so much that what President Jagdeo and his Presidential Advisor said was outrageous, as it was risible. Even supposing, for the sake of argument, that they were to approach some agency of the United Nations with their twaddle, do they seriously believe that their own media record would not be subject to scrutiny as well?
Have they forgotten their almost two-decade stranglehold on radio and the withholding of state advertising from first this newspaper and then the privately-owned press as a whole? And are they so naïve as to believe that a look would not be taken by the UN at some of the material published in the Guyana Chronicle and, yes, the Mirror?
The question of course arises as to what all this is about. The general consensus appears to be that it is a rather vulgar attempt at intimidation. Certainly the President pointing to individual journalists in the crowd at the Kitty rally was a case of rank intimidation of ordinary media workers, who as he well knows are not responsible for what is ultimately published in a newspaper; that responsibility falls to the editors alone. As for the media houses per se, it seems strange that given previous attacks by this administration, the governing party would believe that some of them, at least, could be so easily cowed.
But for the rest, one wonders if the President and the authors of this bizarre campaign strategy have intimidation as their only motive. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the PPP is encountering some difficulty in energising its support base, and that the traditional allusions to the ‘twenty-eight years’ are just not producing the kind of response which they did in earlier campaigns. Nearly all the speakers, excluding Mr Ramotar, are still plugging the old shibboleths about the PNC, and exhorting the older generation to inform the young about what happened in the past as they see it. However, as said above, this is not inspiring the constituency as anticipated, and since they need some negative approach to get supporters’ emotions worked up, the independent media have been brought into the frame.
There is probably an additional equally important motive: by discrediting certain media entities, and suggesting they are to be investigated by the United Nations, no less, the governing party hopes to discourage its constituency from taking what they say seriously. Criticism of the government’s record is the last thing it wants the electors in its traditional regions of support to hear. Considering the administration was obliged to back off from implementing the Sharma suspension during the election period, possibly at least partly because of complaints from its own constituents, it is perhaps a moot point as to how successful this onslaught against sectors of the independent media will be.
As for President Jagdeo, the leading light of this misconceived campaign, there has been a lot of talk by hagiographers about his ‘legacy.’ A legacy, however, covers all areas of a head of state’s responsibilities, and Mr Jagdeo’s record with the media will play into how history assesses his democratic credentials, among other things. Similarly his inexplicable lack of presidential decorum and his penchant for vilification would be factors in coming to conclusions about his personality, and how that had bearing on the discharge of his duties. The aggravating thing about the future from the ruling party’s point of view, is that PPP propagandists will have absolutely no control over what posterity will think or write.