TODAY’S column expands on an issue I have hinted at in previous columns without elaboration: the convergence of party politics, the media and the shaping of political attitudes in contemporary Guyana. Over the last few months, PPP leaders and activists have been on a seemingly well-coordinated media blitz. In addition to news stories highlighting the views of PPP leaders on the issues of the day, one could find, on any given day, at least two to three letters to the press by top PPP leaders.
I have commented in previous columns on the value of this media blitz to refurbishing the image of the discredited PPP in the minds of alienated traditional PPP supporters, and simultaneously planting or reinforcing doubts in the minds of government supporters. I also argued that, in the absence of a similarly pointed and coordinated message by the coalition parties, this PPP media blitz takes on inflated importance; it comes over as the only “truth.”
The PPP knows what it is doing. From all indications, it studies its opponents and has figured out their weaknesses. It has a superior knowledge of the political sociology of its own supporters and the larger political landscape, and is prepared to use that knowledge for negative political ends. It did so when it governed, and is prepared to do so in pursuit of regaining power.
Above all, the PPP understands the power of the media, and appears to have a good assessment of the current mood and leanings of that institution; it is milking the seeming dissatisfaction of the media establishment with the government.
My own view is that there is a not-so-subtle realignment of political bias in our print media that is going to have serious implications for who governs in the near future.
Our independent print media have always played a decisive role in shaping people’s views of government, and consequently have helped to legitimise opposition to government over-reach. The role of the Stabroek News and Kaieteur News in undermining the PPP’s authoritarian governance and simultaneously helping to promote the “freedom agenda” of the then opposition is, to my mind, beyond question. The Catholic Standard played a similar role in the heyday of PNC authoritarianism.
I am arguing that the political trajectory is changing before our very eyes as far as political coverage in the influential print media is concerned, and the PPP is the biggest benefactor. Stabroek News, which was denied government advertisement by the PPP government, is now perhaps the most ready source of PPP views and news outside of the PPP-aligned Guyana Times. It is not just the volume of coverage of the PPP, but it is the subtle and not-so-subtle favourable coverage that is driving that perception.
Opposition Leader, Jagdeo, is the leading political newsmaker in that newspaper.The PPP’s views are, more often than not, lead stories in that paper, and government’s views are often pointedly rebutted in the same story or same edition. When one adds this to the frequent letters by PPP leaders, there is an over-saturation of the PPP’s views. This is often supplemented by some of the most biting anti-government editorials in the local media.
The outcome is that Stabroek News, which was once viewed as openly biased towards the AFC, now, based on the volume and favourability of its coverage of the PPP, appears to favour that party. Whether that shift is driven by subjective editorial choices or by objective developments or both, is still to be determined.
In other words, is Stabroek News pushing a PPP agenda? I am not ready to make that call, but the PPP gets disproportionately more coverage that other parties. The value of Stabroek News’ apparent favourability towards the PPP is that that newspaper has traditionally been seen as the country’s most intellectual and independent newspaper over the last three decades.
The Kaieteur News is most interesting. Its relentless pounding and exposure of the PPP government’s indiscretions and simultaneous bias towards the APNU were pivotal in creating the May 2015 moment. But its early critique of the new government’s stewardship, and the consequent picketing of the paper by the PNC along with GECOM’s withdrawal of advertisements have combined to produce an anti-government stance, which, though not as virulent as that against the previous government, is very incisive.
The newspaper has given wide coverage, from a critical perspective, to most of the major issues of the day, from constitutional reform to the issue of sugar reform. It has, for example, taken on Exxon Mobil and the coming oil economy from a nationalist standpoint, which in turn exposes the government’s own relatively soft nationalist attitude to the issue.
Freddie Kissson’s unvarnished critique of the government, as well as the newspaper’s willingness to privilege the opinions of well-known independent commentators have added to this anti-establishment profile. More than the other newspapers, Kaieteur News sells opinions and narratives which are very important in shaping political attitudes in Guyana. In that sense, one can argue that the paper has been consistent as an anti-establishment crusader, while providing the reading public with political interpretations of the news and the larger politics both as columns and news.
The PPP benefits from Kaieteur’s new trajectory, by virtue of its being the only real opposition party, and because it is very adept at aligning its agenda to independent critiques of the government. In other words, the PPP leaders know how to make news, and since reporters and newspapers go after news and newsmakers, the PPP benefits directly and indirectly.
If the Kaieteur News has been consistent as an anti-establishment crusader, the Guyana Chronicle has been consistent as a government supporter. The paper, today, is as aggressive as the mouthpiece of the government as it was during the PPP’s reign. One discernable difference, however, is that whereas under the PPP government, the paper was also the mouthpiece of the governing party, under this government, it is hardly plays that role.
The problem with the Chronicle is that it almost exclusively covers government ministers and their activities, and gives little coverage to the PPP and to independent commentators as newsmakers. In this regard, it lags behind the other papers. The reading audience is less interested in where a bridge or road is built, or what a minister says at this or that event. Government ministers are not newsmakers, unless they are part of the defining conversations of the day. Ultimately, the Guyanese public, like most publics, is interested in opinions and narratives about the news and politics. But the Chronicle does precious little of this outside of its weekly columns.
The paper gives comparatively less coverage to the PPP, thus continuing the tradition of government-owned newspapers. But because the other newspapers with larger circulations cover the PPP extensively, this approach does not hurt the party as the authors of the tactic envisaged. The paper’s government-centred agenda would be better served by covering the PPP more, and in the process subjecting that party’s narratives to critique and rebuttal by independent commentators.
Finally, the Guyana Times, which has been the PPP’s go-to newspaper from its inception, has continued its super-partisan role, but with less emphasis on party politics.
Because the PPP enjoys considerably more favourable coverage in the Kaieteur News and Stabroek News, the role of the Guyana Times, in this regard, is not as necessary as it used to be. So, the paper serves the PPP agenda, by pushing narratives that are overtly pro-Indian Guyanese. It has become the newspaper of Indian Guyanese victimhood and suffering, which plays a significant role in the PPP’s larger political narratives. It, for example, is the source of the reinterpretation and savaging of government-leaning or aligned independent commentators such as Eric Phillips, Lincoln Lewis, Tacuma Ogunseye, Freddie Kissoon and David Hinds. It paints them as narrowly and dangerously Afro-centric and racist.
In the case of Kissoon, he is cast in the demonic image of anti-Indian self-hater.
I have sought to lay out the print-press landscape to make the larger point that the PPP is disproportionately benefiting from this landscape, and to sound the warning that this development could hurt the coalition parties and government in the long run. A critical factor which I have discussed in the past is these parties’ unwillingness to present a counter-narrative to the PPP’s in the form of their own narrative.
From the president to the parties, they have frowned on press conferences as theatres of political contestation and popularisation of narratives of political self. The PPP holds one every week, and in the process controls the week’s news-cycle, often with damaging narratives of the government. The president has not held any in two years. The PNC has held one during that time; only to tell the press of plans for the party’s 60th anniversary plans. Nothing about oil, sugar, GECOM, parking meter contract, constitutional reform, crime, public sector wages, land reform, or the Demerara Bridge.
The AFC and WPA have held a handful each. The last one by the AFC degenerated into a government press conference rather than a forum for the party’s perspectives on the issues of the day. The WPA took centre-stage for a few weeks as it sought to turn the spotlight on intra-coalition democracy and introduce an intra-coalition critique of governance and government. But that foray seems to have subsided, thus feeding the speculation and perhaps conclusion about the party’s capacity to balance its stated dual role of government participation and critiquing power.
(More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)