RACE, ETHNICITY, AND THE MEDIA IN GUYANA
PREM MISIR, Ph.D.
July 29, 2003
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
Therefore, a major thrust among media operatives is to examine the
Societies 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 mobilize 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 recognizable patterns of race and ethnic conflict, action, and drama. The reported items, generally, have a visible and distinct protagonist.
The media as a socialization agent The media, acting as an agent of socialization, 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 Individuals personal construct views the world with an inaccurate lens.
As a socialization 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 among two or more factors. In
effect, a conclusion is made that a difference or relationship among the
factors exists when in fact it does not. Type II Error is a wrong decision
made to accept a statement of no difference or relationship between variables, concluding that no difference or relationship among 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 polarization 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 characterization of Guyana being racially polarized 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 dialog 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 dialog. 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 visualize, 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 to 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 behavioral and social science researchers, to conduct such a study. Indeed, Stabroek News will be obligated to fund this research program! 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 recognized 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 rationalized 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 analyzing 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.