President of the Barbados Association of Journalists and Media Workers (BARJAM) Emmanuel Joseph is cautioning political leaders to refrain from engaging in conduct that would raise doubts about the impartiality of media workers, especially in relation to elections.
And he has suggested that Prime Minister Mia Mottley who announced there would be debates ahead of the St George North by-election had likely triggered a decision by three of the six candidates to boycott the planned events.
During a press conference on October 3 to announce the November 11 poll, Mottley disclosed plans for three national debates to be aired live on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
According to the BARJAM president this immediately prompted questions from at least two political parties about potential interference from the ruling Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
“I think that in the eyes of the different politicians, it started wrong, because some parties did not feel that the Government or the Prime Minister should have been involved. So, the fact that the debates were announced by the Prime Minister is where the issue really is,” Joseph said.
“People were thinking that the Government was directing [BARJAM] and instructing us, and telling us what to do, and how to do it,” the veteran journalist contended.
On October 21, Democratic Labour Party (DLP) candidate Floyd Reifer announced that he would not be participating in the debate, noting that he was more interested in engaging constituents more directly. This was followed by United Progressive Party (UPP) candidate Ambrose Grosvenor pulling out. Less than a week before the first debate, which had been set for Thursday, the People’s Party for Democracy and Development (PdP) also decided it would not be participating.
The decisions have forced BARJAM to scale down the event significantly and host just one debate that will include candidates from the Bajan Free Party, Solutions Barbados, and the BLP.
Making matters worse were the decisions of Starcom Network Station Manager David Ellis and respected broadcaster Julius Gittens to withdraw their services as moderators.
Joseph, who will now be hosting the Thursday night showdown, explained that Ellis did not feel comfortable covering all six topics as he had only prepared to discuss three, based on the initial arrangement. Gittens, who was originally slated to host the now cancelled November 6 debate, informed BARJAM on October 28 that he was unavailable.
“The only challenge for me is having to adjust every time somebody pulls out, and that goes mainly for the politicians. We had to adjust the timing… because of the number of people and the topics. So now, we have one debate and we can challenge all six topics,” Joseph told Barbados TODAY.
“In life, I see everything as a learning process and it could only give us experience going forward. It can only make us better.”
Going forward, however, Joseph is appealing to political leaders to be more prudent in their approach to election campaigns and national debates, as the perception of impartiality was paramount.
“In the interest of transparency and understanding the nature of the political beast, I don’t think that politicians or persons in power should be making any announcement. The issue is not necessarily so much about what is wrong or right, but simply about how things are perceived,” he said.
“The worst thing you can do when it comes to political issues is to create doubt about the transparency of the process. Perception, as they say, is greater than reality and everything must be done to avoid implying or suggesting that there is a lack of impartiality.”
In addition, he disclosed that BARJAM is exploring the idea of setting up a debate committee that will include representatives from numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other interest groups to assist with future national debates.
Nevertheless, BARJAM is moving forward with Thursday’s debate. It starts at 8:05 p.m. and will be aired live on television, radio and all online news platforms.