Race, ethnicity, and the media in Guyana

By Prem Misir, Ph.D.
Guyana Chronicle
May 11, 2000

PEOPLE entering the media field in Guyana need to understand the social context of the society on which they will report. Interpretations grounded in an understanding of social contexts tend to be objective, reliable, valid, and fundamentally fair. One of the dominant characteristics of the Guyana social context is the perception of racism and racial discrimination. Therefore, a major thrust among media operatives is to examine the society's multiethnic character historically and contemporaneously on the media.

Media in a Position of Dominance
A good grounding in the multiethnic character of the society, both historically and contemporaneously, will enable us to examine the media role and its involvement in presenting distorted communication. The media, today in Guyana, can be viewed as the central nervous system of society. The media occupy a position of dominance in our culture and politics, as never seen before. The media houses are ubiquitous, and could well be on the way to saturate Guyanese lives. Media houses play a daily role in attempting to influence the governing process in Guyana. Every day, the media evaluate the Government's performance. These daily evaluations aspire to inform and mobilise Guyanese continuously. If they are successful in these efforts, then they are managing public sentiment. Clearly, too, there are professional biases among journalists, for they tend to have preference for items that spotlight recognisable patterns of race and ethnic conflict, action, and drama. The reported items, generally, have a visible and distinct protagonist.

The media as a socialisation agent
The media, acting as an agent of socialisation, help to form a person's identity. This process is achieved through a person's contact with the `media culture' that presents a large frame of reference. A person's identity is an emerging consciousness. Consciousness refers to internal cognitive and emotional awareness inherent in each individual that mainly arises from learning experiences (Real, 1996:38). In the media, the person creating the media message conceives of it in the messenger's own consciousness. The media message is, then, transferred via a medium to become an experience in the consciousness of the receiver. The person, conceivably, could develop a distorted consciousness and social identity when media reports are consistently biased. In this case, the individual's personal construct views the world with an inaccurate lens.

As a socialisation agent, the media have to mirror the society. Are the media really objectively and accurately reflective of Guyanese society in the area of race and ethnic relations? Do they interpret race conflicts in the context of class stratification? The answer is no. Most electronic and some print media present biased and extreme media messages consistent with their particular political party affiliation or sympathy, without regard to objectivity and fundamental fairness.

Media making wrong decisions - media distortions
The media sometimes commit Type I and/or Type II Errors (Medler and Medler, 1996:175-177). Type I Error is a wrong decision made to reject a statement of no relationship or no difference between two or more factors. In effect, a conclusion is made that a difference or relationship between the factors exists when in fact it does not. Type II Error is a wrong decision to accept a statement of no difference or relationship between variables, concluding that no difference or relationship between the factors exists when in fact it does. An example relevant to Guyana is where the media houses are regularly committing Type I error. This particular Type I Error refers to an erroneous conclusion drawn where ethnic conflict between Africans and East Indians is determined as being nationwide. If this were so, then all multiethnic societies are racially unstable because they have this countrywide ethnic conflict. This is not the case, since many of these countries are relatively stable as evidenced by their high levels of social and economic development. The U.S. as a multiethnic society is a good example of relative stability. Pockets of institutional racism and discrimination are ever present and, of course, they have to be addressed. But pockets of institutional racism are not tantamount to a nationwide racial divide and ethnic conflict.

Let's explore the Type I Error through this notion of Guyana having nationwide racial divide between Africans and East Indians, in order to demonstrate media distortions. Numerous political commentaries claim that racism is rampant in Guyana, and the elected People's Progressive Party (PPP)/Civic Government only represents East Indian interests. The People's National Congress (PNC) party claims that the 1997 elections were rigged, and as such, refuses to acknowledge the PPP/Civic Administration, including the President. The political commentaries claim, too, that the PNC represents African interests. What has emerged since the last elections, say the commentaries, is a sharpened polarisation of the two races - Africans and East Indians. Allegations of racism constitute the main theme of these political commentaries. Undoubtedly, racism is alive and well in Guyana as it is in most multiethnic societies. But is such racism equivalent to a nationwide racial divide producing nationwide ethnic conflict violence?

Guyanese across racial and class lines are concerned with having stable employment and job security, rising real wages, access to quality and affordable health care, quality education, and child care, strategic areas where discriminatory practices can be sought. The evidence does not support the view that nationwide discrimination encroaches on each of these institutions, to the point where Africans are treated in an inferior way, or East Indians are denied rights on the basis of their race. In education, both Africans and Indians have comparable rates of high school attendance, high school graduation, and access to higher education. With regard to jobs, Africans are conspicuous in the higher echelons of the public service to which they have traditionally gravitated. Inadequate access and quality health care are found throughout the society to which both poor Africans and East Indians are vulnerable.

In the pursuit of eliminating racism and ethnic conflict, a key indicator is racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is an act of unfair treatment directed against a person on the basis of that person's perceived racial characteristics. Invariably, a person who suffers racial discrimination is perceived by the discriminator (individual, institutions) as someone who is inferior due to his/her race/ethnicity. Racial discrimination has to be identified and measured, in order to demonstrate the extent of racism in Guyana. The level of discrimination can be identified through an indicator called `socioeconomic status' (SES). SES is a combined index score pertaining to education, income, and occupation. If Africans are the victims of large-scale racial discrimination, then they would have a lower SES, compared to East Indians, at each class level. Again, if East Indians were subject to considerable discrimination, then their SES would have been lower than that of Africans at each class level. But this is not the case for both groups. In fact, Africans and East Indians have comparable SES, since they are well represented in each class division.

Media commentaries, in alluding to racism in Guyana, must provide evidence as to how the two major ethnic groups are affected by racism and discrimination when they have comparable SES. However, institutional discrimination does exist in the corridors of some institutions, and these have to addressed by the People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic) Administration. But given the comparable SES of both Africans and East Indians at each class level, the media characterisation of Guyana being racially polarised on a nationwide scale, is a gross distortion, and therein lies the Type I Error. The `letters' section in Stabroek News is a case in point.

Stabroek News' letters - a case study in media distortion
Stabroek News continues to give space to the incessant finger pointing between the two major ethnic groups in Guyana. Invariably, with hindsight, ethnic history can be interpreted to support a particular position, without any grounding in scientific scholarship. This is socially irresponsible, as this finger pointing while merely an exercise in intellectual rhetoric, possibly serves the newspaper's purpose of fanning the flames of hatred. In this futile intellectual bravado, each party to the dialogue wants to win his/her argument.

This approach smacks of a zero-sum power game where a person always wins at someone's expense. Pro-East Indian commentators want to present a positive side to their argument, and Africans have a similar goal. This is certainly not the process for enhancing race relations in a multicultural society. Finger pointing, historically, is a popular activity among ethnic extremists. Of course, they are found on both sides of the ethnic camps. Guyanese from all walks of life must reject this extremist line, as it is inimical to social development. Stabroek News allegedly seems to be playing one ethnic group against the other in the same way the imperialists divided these two ethnic groups.

Stabroek News does this very well by allowing space to anxious opportunists and ethnic extremists, in order to lay the groundwork for ethnic and political instability. In so far as these finger pointing exercises persist, the Guyana society will be perceived as being unstable. This appears to be the goal of Stabroek News. In effect, ethnic extremists are quite functional for Stabroek News. Whatever travesty might have been committed by both groups, let's not remind each other as to which group has the highest score on perversion. What really is anyone's motive for wanting to determine who scored the highest in human atrocities?

The ethnic scorecard perspective is applied here. For instance, for a few days in any week, letters present a particular ethnic viewpoint, and the score at that time may be 2-0. In the other days of that week, letters will now represent another ethnic perspective, and so the score at this point may be 2-4. The scorecard panorama is unnecessary, and most of the time the letters present redundant data. This approach certainly cannot contribute to progressive race and ethnic relations.

However, we need to understand the social context in which some outrage of inhumanity occurred. Let's not forget that the entire framework for any abomination, was socially engineered by external forces. The hands of both major ethnic extremists in Guyana are stained with the blood of inhumanity to man and hatred of fellow Guyanese. Ethnic extremists are peddling their brand of racist pollution, and Stabroek News is a tremendous facilitator. Of course, the newspaper may say that this is what free speech is all about. But such public discourse must be conducted within the norms and parameters of social responsibility.

IN determining content for public dissemination, the good of the society must supersede any individual's self-interest and opportunistic tendencies. Guyana is a multicultural society that regresses amid such inappropriate public dialogue. Guyana is a pluralist society based on mutual respect among the many ethnic groups for one another's cultures. Ethnic extremism pollutes this healthy pluralism and advances racial hatred. The finger-pointing debate fails to understand the social construction of the ethnic landscape. Significant intra-ethnic differences prevail for both Africans and East Indians. Ethnic extremists seem unable to perceive these changes in `Indianness' and `Africanness'. Their sterile debate can only see ethnic groups as static. In another context, Anna Maria Arias of Hispanic magazine would classify this finger-pointing debate as, "It's stupid. There are more important issues we should be talking about." (Bennett, 1993:A10).

In this multiethnic society, panethnicity has appeared. Panethnicity is the growth of solidarity among ethnic subgroups. Coalition of different ethnic groups to promote a cause in the interests of a specific region would be an example of panethnicity. Fundamental cultural differences among East Indians themselves are predominantly highlighted by East Indian ethnic extremists, in order to show strength in the Indian diversity. But they use a sterile method to assess `Indianness', and, therefore, cannot see the emerging panethnicity among East Indians. Some African ethnic extremists also promote significant variations among Africans, and so are unable to visualise, too, a creeping panethnicity among Africans. In effect, ethnic extremists' perceptions pertaining to the ethnicity of Africans and East Indians are not similar to the perceptions on ethnicity held by both Africans and East Indians.

Solidarity within East Indian and African subgroups reduces the potency of ethnic extremism, and therefore, produces an opportunity for improving race and ethnic relations. Ethnic extremism thrives on the cultural differences within a particular ethnic group. Some have been exploiting this situation in the name of free speech. However, panethnicity within each ethnic subgroup has the capability to reduce the spread of ethnic extremism, the dreaded social disease.

While `Stabroek News' may claim that they are facilitating free speech by disseminating all ideas, their constant presentation of ethnic extremism in the letters' section, defies the boundaries of reasonableness, fundamental fairness, and an irresponsible understanding of race and ethnic issues. Therein lies the media distortion. How can `Stabroek News' claim to be an objective conduit for the distribution of all ideas when some of those ideas inaccurately, unfairly, and aggressively promote Indianness to the detriment of Africanness and Africanness to the disadvantage of Indianness, within the social context of a multiethnic society?

This line of thinking by `Stabroek News', apparently, smacks of a promotion of hate speech. Those who defend the letters' section of `Stabroek News', due to lustful political blinkers, may not be able to see the ethnic hate that is churned out daily. Or maybe they do! Extremists' arguments in favor of these hate writings are also not surprising because `Stabroek News' provides a convenient site for these misguided people to spew their literary filth in the public sphere. The concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, for they have to be activated within the parameters of the law and the normative rules of society. The lack of media protocols and a code of conduct generally, can correct some of these media distortions.

The criticism made of `Stabroek News' is not that the newspaper fails to allow the inclusion of normative free speech, but that it promulgates `ethnic and extremist' materials which assault the dignity and humanity of both major ethnic groups in Guyana. A content analysis of the letters included, based on the scientific method, will almost certainly reveal findings that do not reject the assertion of its inaccurate, unfair, inflammatory, and degrading presentation of the history and culture of Africans and East Indians. Let `Stabroek News' put this claim to the test by assembling competent behavioural and social science researchers, to conduct such a study. Indeed, `Stabroek News' will be obligated to fund this research programme! This study will definitively support the claim of media distortions in the letters' section of `Stabroek News'.

Striving for undistorted communication
Media should contribute to nation-building by helping to produce a society with undistorted communication. The purpose of this kind of media presentation is communicative understanding (Ritzer, 1996:155). The media can achieve communicative understanding through a process of consensus. Consensus itself is reached through discourse, but only when four types of validity claims are recognised by media houses. These are:

** The media presentation is understandable.

** The media statements are true, that is, media houses are presenting reliable knowledge.

** The media house itself is reliable.

** The media houses have the right to make these statements, provided that the other three claims are met.

However, Guyanese, since the December 1997 national elections, have witnessed various forces that prevented this consensus from unfolding, resulting in a high volume of distorted media communication.

Freedom of speech & freedom of the press
The concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, for they have to be presented within the law and the normative rules of society. Article VIII of the Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean Community stipulates that there should be freedom of expression and access to information. But the exercise of this right requires special duties and responsibilities, and may be effected subject to reasonable restraints for the public good, as may be rationalised in law in a democratic state. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday remarked "I do not believe that freedom of the press includes the untrammeled right to publish lies, half-truths and innuendoes about anyone". (Speech in Parliament, 1998). Even the most liberal Western democracy requires restrictions on these two fundamental rights. The U.S., as one of these liberal Western democracies, has strong statutory measures to deal with `hate' speech and other racist `bias' acts.

Responsible reporting
The Herdmanston Accord alluded to the creation of a new environment in which conflict resolution can be effected with agreed procedures by both major parties, without the use of accusatory language and distorted communication that may inflame the political context. Media houses must be required to present responsible reporting, for their role is significant in contributing to progressive race and ethnic relations. Responsible reporting requires objectivity, accuracy, and fundamental fairness.

Multiculturalism, a key to guide the media
The history of the Caribbean has shown the biased role media houses have played in reporting and analysing race conflicts vis-a-vis invariably and covertly supporting ruling political parties, especially those parties that thrive on inflaming racist sensitivities. Sometimes the media do it under the guise of promoting free speech. In addition, media houses usually present the notion of racism and discrimination unlinked to class. Using this perspective will not bring real solutions to race and class conflicts. In so far as any dominant ethnic party attempts to assimilate the other ethnics to its value system, the race politics will endure. The media, by bolstering this evil brand of politics, can only add credibility to this sinister development. Those harnessed with political power in the Caribbean must ensure the sustenance of other people's cultures, and therefore focus policy agenda on the principle of multiculturalism. Effecting such policies would not only develop a culture of trust, but would obliterate the need for race politics. In this scenario, the media would have no choice but to use the idea of free speech in the name of multiculturalism.

The Caribbean has remained and functioned at or below the poverty line for far too long, largely as a result of the mistrust fostered among ethnic groups in each class category. Government's policy frameworks grounded in real multiculturalism will carry positive seeds for the creation of a nation. Individual Caribbean societies will not become real nations as long as its politicians continue to dabble in race politics. Governments with assistance from media houses will have to provide leadership in the promotion of multiculturalism.