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 is a writer and commentator and the Fraternal Relatons Officer of the Saint Lucia Labour Party.