The Press and Elec­tions 2016

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Earl Bous­quet Earl Bous­quet is a writer and com­men­ta­tor and the Fra­ter­nal Re­la­tons Of­fi­cer of the Saint Lu­cia Labour Party.

Oh how things change when elec­tions are ap­proach­ing. Nor­mally ‘okay’ peo­ple can sud­denly be­come nor­mally ab­nor­mal, say­ing what they don’t know, even re­peat­ing what they don’t be­lieve. And some will ac­tu­ally just lie, as if it’s nor­mal to lie for votes in elec­tion pol­i­tics.

In the past few months, ev­ery ef­fort has been made here to build moun­tains out of diplo­matic mole hills. The fears painted have been scary: that the Juf­fali Af­fair will lead to the UK break­ing ties with Saint Lu­cia; that the Cit­i­zen­ship by In­vest­ment Pro­gram (CIP) will pro­vide ‘Mus­lim ter­ror­ists’ with Saint Lu­cia pass­ports; that the US is con­sid­er­ing deeper sanc­tions against Saint Lu­cia over the IMPACS Re­port; and now, that the Euro­pean Union is sup­posed to have been pres­sur­ing France to pres­sure Saint Lu­cia over the IMPACS re­port; and that France is also get­ting ready to stop Saint Lu­cians from shop­ping or vis­it­ing in Mar­tinique be­cause our jus­tice sys­tem is too slow.

Of course, none of it has turned out to be true. The UK Courts have proved Sheik Wal­lid Juf­fali’s diplo­matic im­mu­nity does not ap­ply to a case in­volv­ing his pri­vate prop­erty. No one abroad has com­plained of any­thing about the CIP be­ing a pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist call­ing card. Far from con­sid­er­ing heav­ier sanc­tions, the US State Depart­ment is en­ter­ing into le­gal talks with Saint Lu­cia’s Wash­ing­ton lawyers. Far from plan­ning sanc­tions against Saint Lu­cia, the Euro­pean Union is in fact gung-ho about open­ing its big­gest pro­ject in the Caribbean, the Owen King Hos­pi­tal here. And France has made it ab­so­lutely clear that it’s not be­ing pres­sured by the EU to pres­sure Saint Lu­cia over any­thing.

Yet all the dooms­day proph­e­sies of the na­tional naysay­ers con­tinue to make head­lines across the lo­cal me­dia. Front-page head­line claims are be­ing proven wrong. Edi­to­rial in­ter­pre­ta­tions are be­ing proven way off tar­get. But rather than face the truth, many here pre­fer to shift the goal­post. When the lo­cal Cen­tral Sta­tis­ti­cal Of­fice pub­lishes em­ploy­ment fig­ures not to their lik­ing, the Doubt­ing Thomases then ask “how sus­tain­able” the jobs were and even what colour T-shirts the newly-em­ployed per­sons wear.

Same too, with fig­ures from rep­utable in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. The In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion (ILO), the World Bank, the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF) and the UN’s Eco­nomic Com­mis­sion for Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean (ECLAC) all pre­dict un­em­ploy­ment in­ter­na­tion­ally will get worse be­fore it gets bet­ter. All ad­mit that some Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean states are show­ing en­cour­ag­ing growth and em­ploy­ment fig­ures, but all also warn against com­pla­cency.

In that sense, Saint Lu­cia can­not – and the govern­ment does not – urge peo­ple to cel­e­brate. Af­ter all, no coun­try has in­vented a for­mula to erase un­em­ploy­ment. Sim­i­larly, no Saint Lu­cian govern­ment has in­vented a for­mula to cre­ate enough jobs each year to ab­sorb ev­ery stu­dent grad­u­at­ing into the world of work.

The em­ploy­ment fig­ures have not been to the lik­ing of any­one here. As such, you’d think we’d all wel­come the fact that youth un­em­ploy­ment went down by 10% in three months and the over­all em­ploy­ment rate went down by al­most 5% in the same three months. No other CARI­COM or OECS coun­try has boasted sim­i­lar facts of late. But in­stead, some here still ques­tion the ac­cu­racy of the same Cen­tral Sta­tis­ti­cal Of­fice (or Sta­tis­tics Depart­ment) they hap­pily quote only when its fig­ures are in their pro­pa­ganda favour.

Call­ers to my daily ra­dio show ( earl@large on wVENT 93.5 and 94.7fm) in­creas­ingly com­plain about the ab­sence of con­struc­tive political de­bate at the start of the cam­paign for the next gen­eral elec­tions. Most ask that the me­dia take the lead in pro­mot­ing real de­bate and dis­cus­sion be­tween the par­ties and can­di­dates. Young per­sons, in the most, say they still haven’t heard any­thing to en­cour­age them to want to lis­ten to our politi­cians. But they do en­joy com­bin­ing their comedic tal­ents with the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy at their fin­ger­tips to spread political im­ages and mes­sages faster than IT cave­men like me could ever have imag­ined in the Ice Age of four decades ago.

As I have done ahead of ev­ery gen­eral elec­tion since In­de­pen­dence 37 years ago, I also keep ap­peal­ing through the TV shows I share to­day -- The Press Club and Com­men­tary (on DBS TV) and Head-to-Head (on Cal­abash TV) – for us in the me­dia to play a more ac­tive role in en­cour­ag­ing de­bate at the be­gin­ning of the elec­tion cam­paign.

We shouldn’t wait un­til things get too rough. That’ll be too late. The elec­tion horses in the race will have bolted to the fin­ish­ing line. But then, even if we wish to start now, we can’t do it un­til and un­less we our­selves, in the me­dia, rec­og­nize and ac­cept how im­por­tant it is that we ‘take in front’ early enough.

We can go af­ter each other – as some among us have al­ready started to do. But the real test will be the ex­tent to which we, as me­dia peo­ple, can pos­i­tively in­flu­ence the elec­tion process by what we say and write.

Take the is­sue of spoilt votes. This has been a prob­lem ever since the right to vote was won in 1951. Of late, the com­plaint is that too many con­stituency elec­tions are be­ing won with more spoilt votes than the dif­fer­ence be­tween the win­ner and the loser. What’s the an­swer: teach­ing peo­ple who can’t read and write how to place their ‘X’ prop­erly with a pen­cil be­tween two lines, or up­grad­ing our elec­tions to elec­tronic vot­ing?

An­other is­sue: the right to vote. Voter ap­a­thy is high across Saint Lu­cia and the rest of the Caribbean. How to get peo­ple to make use of the right to vote that was fought so hard for by those who de­manded that uni­ver­sal right? Should vot­ing be made com­pul­sory? Should telling or urg­ing peo­ple to ‘Don’t Vote’ be made il­le­gal? Or should peo­ple al­ways have the right not to ex­er­cise the right to vote?

Take the ques­tion of Saint Lu­cians re­sid­ing over­seas… Should qual­i­fied Saint Lu­cians liv­ing abroad be al­lowed to vote with­out re­turn­ing home? Should cit­i­zens who don’t pay tax here have a right to rep­re­sen­ta­tion?

All th­ese are is­sues that we should be clear in our minds about as me­dia peo­ple, be­fore we even ask those ques­tions to any­one. Our role is not only to re­port what of­fi­cials say, but also to in­ter­pret what they say and ex­am­ine the con­se­quences or the im­pact of what they say. We have to trans­late what the of­fi­cials say in strict legalese. But how will we do that ac­cu­rately if we don’t un­der­stand the legalese?

Look at the prom­ises… ev­ery­one is promis­ing ev­ery­thing. Par­ties are promis­ing the moon and the stars. Can­di­dates are of­fer­ing Mars and Jupiter. But how much of it is real? How many of the prom­ises can be re­al­ized? It’s our role in the me­dia, not only to re­port the prom­ises, but also to ex­am­ine them and guide peo­ple as to how to do the same. But if we don’t ex­am­ine or don’t know how to ‘ex­am­ine the horns’, how will we ad­vise vot­ers on how to do it?

I can go on and on, but the bot­tom line is that we in the press al­ways have a more se­ri­ous role to play in gen­eral elec­tions than we gen­er­ally elect to be­lieve. And, as al­ways, we can de­cide to take up our role and elect to per­form our func­tions for this up­com­ing elec­tion. Or, as al­ways so far, we can con­tinue to wait un­til it’s too late.

The choice, like that of ev­ery voter, is ours!

Earl Bous­quet re­ceiv­ing the Saint Lu­cia Medal of Hon­our Gold for out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion in the field of jour­nal­ism from the GG.

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