Olutoye Waldrond is correct. And what makes his published letter to the Nation newspaper on May Day on the perceived bias of the State-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) critical, is that he is a journalist by profession, a former insider with tremendous respect for journalistic integrity, but frustrated with the blatant partisanship of the corporation. Let us be clear. By bias, we simply refer to “a pattern of ‘favouritism’ that occurs when one candidate or party receives more news coverage and more favourable coverage over an extended period of time.” This basis can be structural, partisan, ideological, framing, coverage, statement and so on.
It is a fact, that around every election, the blatant bias becomes more obnoxious. So Walrond wrote, “By now it must be clear that the national radio and television station, Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is functioning less like a national station underpinned by professional standards of independence, fairness and good taste, and more like the propaganda arm of the ruling party.” Far too often, there is concern over the obvious framing biases that can be detected given the content bias which clearly promotes the success of a specific party. And this is what we are now exposed to, almost on a daily basis, by the state media.
It’s been some time since we have had some really interesting pieces of progressive labour legislation in Barbados, but there I was, as usual, watching and listening to the evening news to hear that there would be a live interview with the Minister of Labour. Interesting, I thought, until I witnessed one of the most obvious pieces of unpaid political campaign messages from the Minister which had me speechless at the lack of shame on the part of the corporation. So over the next three weeks, I will continue to monitor and observe whether CBC, oh sorry, DLPBC (Democratic Labour Party Broadcasting Corporation), will have the temerity to continue along this trajectory. The corporation made little effort at subtlety. And that is part of the problem associated with electoral integrity in Barbados and elsewhere in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Media ownership directly affects its important watchdog role during elections. In its assessment on state media, the ACE (the Electoral Knowledge Network) notes that state and government media are often measurably biased in favour of the incumbent parties or candidates. And this is certainly the case with CBC/DLPBC. ACE also views guarantees of pluralism, programme diversity, editorial independence, appropriate funding, accountability and transparency, as critical guarantees of democracy.
But what explains these tendencies, given the qualifications and integrity of many journalists? Again ACE explains that this is rooted in imperialism, especially with the British and the French, which transported their model to the far reaches of their empire. But just as Westminster did not carry well into the Caribbean, so too can the same be said of the public broadcasting model overseas. Under colonialism, therefore, public broadcasters experienced limited independence and this was perpetuated into the post-independence period with governments continuing with the same tradition of broadcaster-as-government-propagandist. And this tendency has intensified with the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, leading to greater privately owned media. The result according to ACE is that in many post-colonial societies, liberalisation has made governments even more determined to cling to editorial control of the public broadcaster.
International conventions provide us with an insight into contemporary broad principles on media and elections. Among the most critical are that:
• the media play a vital watchdog role in holding governments accountable and ensuring the effective functioning of a democracy;
• governments are obliged to ensure the existence of a democracy that ensures media pluralism, especially in elections;
• freedom of political debate is a fundamental right;
• political parties and individuals have a right of access to government media during election campaigns;
• government media are obliged to publish opposition views.
We have heard much about the inability of the opposition to access the CBC/DLPBC and it is useful in that context to review judicial rulings on the right of the opposition to be given a fair space in public broadcasting. In that regard, we can reference the 1985 ruling of the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago in relation to the refusal of the state-owned television station to broadcast a pre-recorded speech by an opposition member of parliament.
In 1982, Rambachan filed a court motion alleging that the State-owned TTT Company had violated his freedom of expression when the state failed to broadcast his pre-recorded political speech, in violation of his right to equality of treatment by the public entity. Three years later, Justice Dalalsingh concurred and ruled that this action violated the right to freedom of expression arguing that “… the fundamental right of ‘free speech’ demands opening up the television media to political broadcast.” The court ruling further stated that “If the government does not enact regulations for this purpose, which accords with the Constitution, then the Courts must require them of TTT to ensure the securing of the enforcement of these rights”
Perhaps the time is ripe for constitutional change which will enshrine the rights of the opposition, in a way which will make such discussions a thing of the past. Election law as we have seen is routinely ignored, often many aspects unregulated and unenforced, so that constitutional reform may provide the only space for the entrenchment of the rights of all political parties.
Taking a leaf from Ghana, the constitution makes two specific provisions (Article 163 and 55 (11, 12), that would guarantee fairness to all parties with respect to access to state-owned media. Accordingly, under the constitution, the State has to provide ‘fair” opportunity to all political parties to present their programmes to the public by ensuring equal access to the State-owned media and to provide all presidential candidates with the same amount of time and space on the state-owned media in order to present their programmes to the nation. In the case of all Caribbean countries with a constitutional monarchy and Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica, we need only to substitute Prime Minister for President.
The existence of these constitutional provisions has been a powerful enabling instrument for media and integrity oversight groups to monitor the observation of these provisions by state media and to call out the state media on infractions. Thus in 2016, Ghana’s Integrity Initiative (GII) charged that the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) had not observed the constitutional provision and accused the state-owned media of bias towards the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the allocation of airtime and space for political party campaigning, ahead of the election.
Whichever political party captures the support of the electorate on May 24, it must commit itself to doing better and to unshackle the hands and feet of the management of CBC which it seems, sanctions and promotes the kind of blatant partisanship in its coverage, especially at elections time. This is a public institution, not a party organ and consequently, it must have the national and not a party interest at its core. It is time to join the ranks of the most enlightened and democratic countries in the world. I, for one, do not believe that notwithstanding the existence of many critical indicators of democratic governance, Barbados and other Caribbean countries should not make every effort to further consolidate the democratic gains that we have made. And unshackling the public and private media is a good first step in the right direction.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)