Media Bias and Electioneering Campaigns in Jamaica: What are the Issues at Play?


Recently, the affiliate arm of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Generation 2000, or G2K as it is more popularly known criticised local media
for what it claimed was the biases of some of its proponents in terms of support for the Opposition, Peoples’ National Party (PNP). Among the key
concerns raised by the G2K was the question of polling, as well as the need for people with affiliations to the PNP to indicate that this is so by stating their status in said Movement.

The young Labourites suggested that the question of media bias (in favour of the PNP) was part of what explained the gap in the numbers between itself and the party currently in Opposition, which most people (according to the polls) are of the view will make up the next government. By this action, the G2K opened further an already ajar door, in the process, calling us to scrutinize the subject of media bias vis-a-vis
the political process in Jamaica.

The G2K also encouraged, though perhaps unintended, an exploration what, at least one member of the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) – Vice Chairman, Brian Schmidt, has called an increasingly hostile attitude toward the Jamaican media by public figures. In this regard, helping to foreground some central considerations about the issue of bias and the media in the, often virulent political culture in Jamaica.

According to Schmidt, in discussions with To The Point on Tuesday, July 26, 2011, the attitudes of hostility toward the media coupled with the
onerous fines levied against in Libel Laws, are justifiable reasons to be concerned about the G2K’s comments.  Indeed, the MAJ Vice-Chair argued that the media cannot remain healthy in a context where they must strive to prove their own credibility, especially considering that in other jurisdictions it is the other way around. He insisted accordingly that, public figures must operate by a higher standard. They rather than the media must prove their credibility.

This is, especially in the case like that in which the G2K has found itself – questioning the methodology of media research as well as the
integrity of the narrative around these issues. AS a result, the critique of media and the political process, as tabled by the G2K, must also take account of how such attitudes contribute to the growing sense in which the Jamaican media are constantly at the mercy of powerful public figures and organisations.

According to Schmidt, this prevents the media, in theory, from carrying out their tasks effectively. Significantly, the MAJA’s critique of the
G2K’s remarks also included actors in the last administration, who are now in Opposition. It cannot, therefore, be read as an effort to single out any one group, individual or party in what he defines as sending chills through the local media. This is in terms of conveying a sense of increased hostility towards the media; that is, in their look at the political process in Jamaica and ensuring that democracy works in the best interests of all.

According Schmidt, the media are increasingly under attack. The rhetoric of certain public figures only adds to this tense state of affairs. Thus, it is necessary to ask whether this is a reasonable contention, especially given the extent to which the media currently does not operate without a complaints or an oversight body. Such an organization, in theory, would sit in judgment of the fairness and professional codes of of the media.

In fact, Minister of Information, Daryl Vaz, has rightly raised the concerns about giving life to such an organization. He contends that such a
group would serve to ensure that where there are concerns about fairness of coverage, impartiality, among other concerns that these are addressed as a means of urgent action.

In responding to such a charge, however, Schmidt says that the issue of a complaints body is superfluous. In his view, it is neither sufficient nor necessary. According to the MAJ Vice-Chair individual media houses already are constrained to obey the broadcasting regulations, as well as
that there are options of appeal. These can be tabled before the MAJ, which is a body comprised of media managers and owners. Included in that group also, is the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), which acts as a quasi-professional grouping for local journalists.

Effectively, Schmidt believes that the media landscape is already ‘policed’ by various mechanisms to ensure that the Four Estate, as it is often
called, does what it is set up to do. However, one cannot help but ask whither the effectiveness of such groups and whether such a complaints body would, necessarily, be redundant given the highly partisan and ‘tribalised’ nature of the Jamaican political scene?

Is it sufficient to argue that the media are already under obligations and, therefore, do not require this means of regulation? That is, regarding the requirements of the PAJ, MAJ and the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ), itself a unique grouping in the discussion which warrants its
own analysis? What harm, in effect, is there for introducing a regulatory body for the local media? And should such a body be responsible for ensuring professional accreditation and possibly also offer ratings for journalists, broadcasters, columnists and talk show hosts?

Schmidt noticeably did not offer a position on those questions in his review of the subject, choosing to argue instead that the media are, effectively, already sufficiently ‘policed’ by the current context. He further maintained that hostile attitudes in the current economic climate, given the burdens of disproving culpability in the case of defamation lawsuits, could potentially harm the media. This is not an ideal state of affairs.

Still, it bears being asked now that Jamaica is constitutionally due another elections in the next year, how will those issues play out in the
ensuing period? This is especially, considering that the Fourth Estate plays such a key role in who gets elected to public office?

In fact, buoyed the poll numbers over which the JLP has raised concerns, the PNP has begun its demands for an election. According to Julian
Robinson, Deputy General Secretary of the PNP, that is partly the result of the public’s refusal to be contained within the mediocrity of the current administration (To The Point on Tuesday, July 26, 2011).

The electorate has grown impatient with the mismanagement and, one could argue based on Mr. Robinson’s position, corruption of the JLP in its
stewardship of the country, specifically on issues like the economy, the administration of justice and others. Thus, while the polls are not sufficient by themselves to underwrite the confidence of the PNP, his Party is nonetheless hugely encouraged in the stridency of its demands.

It is this context in which the JLP’s concerns about bias in the media must be investigated. Are the polling numbers being manipulated to
reflect a biased view of the political landscape at this time? Or, is it simply because they are behind and, in some instances, dramatically which warrants the tabling of this ‘new’ debate about how media operate and the need for greater regulations?

Is there merit, for instance in the claims raised by commentators like Kevin Obrien Chang (also a guest on To the Point) and others about the
biases of certain media toward the sitting administration? They have pointed out that the recent reveal, courtesy of the whistle blowing organisation WikiLeaks about the attitudes of Dr. Peter Phillips, the current PNP Spokesman on the Economy, toward Portia Simpson Miller, the head of the PNP, as one such example.

That story was broken by the Jamaica Observer and not the Gleaner. Significantly, the former has long been felt to be anti-PNP, whereas the
Gleaner has now come to be regarded by some in the JLP as being in bed with the Opposition. Has the G2K and by extension the JLP raised a legitimate concern, therefore, going into the election year?

This, notwithstanding an apology from the Gleaner about its failure to publish the story first, especially given that it had started the process by introducing to the public, cables presumably aimed at ‘getting to the (whole) truth’. Are there legitimate issues surrounding how media are
manipulated in the ongoing electioneering politics, locally?

This, especially, as the various candidates vie for status and advertise themselves as winnable and therefore, trustworthy ahead of the next national polls?

…Tell us what you think? Post your comments below.

(To the Point is a new radio interview, news and discussion programme aired on www.bessfm.com, every Monday to Thursday, from 5:30-7:00 p.m. Listen and let us know what you think!)

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