- Defaced campaign poster from the 2006 elections in Guyana. Copyright: ComSec
By Will Henley
Commonwealth Secretariat teams up with United Nations to broker media code of conduct for Guyanese elections and beyond.
By 2011, Guyana is set to hold presidential, national, regional and – for the first time since 1994 – local elections. The polls bring not only logistical challenges for the nation’s election commissioners, but also, according to observers, real dangers.
“I don’t want to overstate the risk,” says Enrico Woolford, Editor of Capitol News on Guyana’s Channel 7 television station, “but Guyana around election time is a volatile society because of its ethnic and political differences.”
In the decades following independence in 1966, voting in the Caribbean nation – which 20 years ago was the poorest in the region – was a harbinger of instability and violence.
With each poll came accusations of stuffed ballot boxes and election malpractice, stoked, say commentators, by biased reports from the country’s polarised media.
“You have two main ethnic groups [Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese] vying for political space,” says Mr Woolford, who describes the looming local elections as “historic”.
In 1998, tensions boiled over to the extent that a state of emergency was declared in the capital, Georgetown, and regional intervention by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was required to restore peace. In 2002, amid renewed violence, a popular TV presenter was charged with treason after reportedly encouraging demonstrators to storm the presidential complex.
“Rumours fill the air in Guyana – they can start in a minute and next you know it they are all round the country,” says Trevor Benn, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) governance analyst, who has been observing developments in the country. As Mr Benn explains, the media have a history of fuelling suspicions among political candidates and the public in general.
Building on the 2006 media code
“A number of talk show hosts spoke very loosely about what they felt might have been happening, [which] resulted in feelings of mistrust and anger among ethnic groups and the population,” he says. “It led to a number of street protests. Buildings in the main business areas were targeted and many set on fire. People were pounced on in the streets and allegations of rape were reported.
“People were living in constant fear of what to expect, wondering whether they should go out and whether they should vote.”
In the absence of any legislation to regulate the broadcast media, the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNDP were in 2005 invited by the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to help agree a code of conduct between state and private media. The code which was then agreed – and supervised by a new media monitoring unit within GECOM – committed journalists and broadcasters to adhere to fair, balanced and accurate reporting at the 2006 elections.
According to international observers, the code helped contribute to a marked reduction in violence. The Commonwealth’s election team noted at the time that there was a “clear indication that the media code of conduct was being honoured”.
‘Many were sceptical’
Yet, by early 2010, with local elections fast approaching, it was felt that the code needed to be updated. Negotiations between state and private media to agree a revised code in 2009 had proven fruitless, and GECOM turned again to the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNDP to work with the parties.
Tim Neale, an expert adviser at the Secretariat – who worked on the 2006 code and recruited and trained GECOM’s media monitoring unit – was flown back into the country to meet with media bosses. “Somehow you’ve got to call the media’s attention to [the need to ensure fairness and reduce the risk of violence] just before an election,” explains Mr Neale, addressing the rationale for the new code.
“It’s a matter of making it crystal clear by reminding all the media that they are entering this key period again and that the nation is depending on them.”
Alongside UNDP and GECOM, Mr Neale brought together the owners, managers and editors from all major state and private media organisations at Georgetown’s Hotel Tower on 12 March 2010 to look anew at the document. “We took the 2006 code and put it up on a big screen,” he recalls. “Thirty people all sitting around this screen went through it sentence-by-sentence.”
‘An absolute success’
However, while getting all the parties in one room was one feat, sealing the deal was quite another.
“The problem is always to get both state media and private media to agree, because they have different perspectives. That makes it quite a challenging exercise,” Mr Neale says. “After going through the first paragraph one hour had gone by. I thought, ‘it’s going to take us several weeks to do this!’ So I told them, ‘we’re never going to do it at this rate – keep your sentences short and not too wordy.’ And, unbelievably, by the end of the day we’d got through it.”
The new code was agreed to unanimous approval the following day. It covers election reporting in the immediate pre- and post- election periods, but also – in referring to the basic principles of democratic journalism – covers the similarly crucial ‘intra-election’ period between polls.
Mr Benn is full of praise for Mr Neale’s effort, which for a second time – and after more than a year of wrangling between the different organisations – has helped deliver a code of conduct in time for Guyana’s upcoming elections. “I lift my hat off to Tim Neale,” he says. “Many were sceptical that he would be able to pull it off.”
The signing of the code “could only be deemed an absolute success”, adds Chairman of GECOM, Dr Steve Surujbally. Not only were all media players involved in crafting this piece of self-regulation, but they have “all committed themselves” to abide by it, he insists.
“For media owners and editors, it serves as a form of protection against criticism and legal action and provides a basic guarantee about the credibility of their output.”
Benchmarks on good practice
“For journalists, the code provides a benchmark against which their output and activities can be judged by others, as well as guidance for them about acceptable methods of gathering and presenting information. For the public, it provides a guarantee that the material they receive is a genuine reflection of the truth, based on information gathered fairly and thoroughly checked by those who present the information,” Dr Surujbally adds.
As for Mr Woolford, one of the editors to sign up to the revised code last month, he, too, is philosophical about the future. He says that he is “optimistic” now that the revised code is in place, though he adds that its success will depend on the commitment of the country’s media.
“I think the code does allow for fair and accurate reporting. It has benefits in terms of good practice, which is one of the reasons I signed on. News stories need to be as accurate and fair and balanced as possible. They need to show as many sides as possible so that the information is out there and can be used by the electorate to make informed decisions.”
But, as Mr Woolford insists: “To make sure there is no ethnic violence and polarisation the onus is on journalists.”