Here in T&T yesterday, mindlessly annoying firecrackers notwithstanding, we had the comfort and delights of Divali even as voting and the ensuing counts continued in Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada—where two referenda were underway on accession to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
By now we would have also had results from yesterday’s midterm elections in the United States, while campaigning for November 12 local government elections in Guyana intensifies. I have also been keeping an eye on Fiji’s November 14 general election; not only because I am an elections junkie but because, back in 2014, I worked with journalists there in preparing them for the first election since the 2006 coup d'état.
At that time, very few journalists in the South Pacific country had ever covered an election and just as many had never voted in their entire lives. It was an experience of a lifetime if only because the arrival of free elections following a forced hiatus brings with it a sense of freedom that is virtually without parallel.
Can you imagine what it was like in South Africa in 1994? Or in Poland in 1989? As a journalist, you sometimes have the opportunity to brush shoulders with history. So, yes, I have stood elbow-length distances from both Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.
Through all of this, the circumstances that took these memorable people to positions of power and influence linger in journalistic contemplation as being at the root of what distinguishes civilised society from experiences in brutish tyranny.
In some instances, there have been cases of democratic relapse, while in others there have been struggles to sustain a semblance of civility or even to assert a claim of democracy where there really has been little or none.
There is something about the practice of journalism that also draws attention to the effective conduct of democracy. This is so partly because fundamental freedoms, including and particularly freedom of expression, are among the most visible casualties of an absent democracy.
I have therefore tended to use a free speech measure when assessing the merits of claims that elections are being democratically conducted. Attacks on media, for example, usually typify attempts to undermine fair electoral processes.
In this respect, and though there are other spectacular examples near and far, the Caribbean offers up an interesting laboratory for further investigation.
In Guyana, for instance, a model emerged—following post-election disturbances in the 1990s—that helped the media community and others keep tabs on media compliance with agreed guidelines as expressed in a widely-supported code of practice.
Though, eventually, almost everyone broke the rules—the State media in particular—there was a general understanding that an environment which conduces to the pursuit of certain core values of media practice constitutes a preferred scenario and would help bolster the credibility and acceptability of elections and their results.
This means that not only are the principles of good media practice desirable but that a general environment of openness and accountability should be in place to ensure effective application of such principles.
The Guyana experiment comprises a good working template for media-watchers assessing the run-up to the two CCJ referenda. There is also the requirement of core journalistic values: accuracy, independence (politicians do not generally get this one), fairness, humanity, and accountability.
Among the lessons of democracy then are satisfactory observance of the responsibilities of all contestants (among whom working journalists do not belong), together with high standards of media performance. This, of course, does not include the work of propagandists who thrive on misinformation and disinformation and the undermining, by politicians and their cronies, of honest fact-checked, fact-seeking journalism.
Of course, yesterday’s results count for much. And we all, as private citizens, had our horses in the respective races. But let’s learn the lessons that took our neighbours, near and far, to this point and act on them when our own turn arrives.