Under scrutiny in this Age of Information
Sometimes we cannot help but wonder if the present administration of the Government of Barbados, especially its leadership, is totally oblivious to the fact that Barbados has fully entered the Information Age and that citizens today increasingly look to the media to ensure Government is kept under scrutiny and held accountable on their behalf.
The attitude of the Freundel Stuart administration often conveys this impression, especially in relation to communication with the public on key issues, or the lack thereof, and the overall management of its image and reputation. It is as if the administration somehow believes that it is impervious to public opinion about its stewardship.
Whether the administration cares to accept it or not, the Information Age, which was brought about by sweeping technological change resulting in the popularization of the computer and related devices, shapes the environment in which it operates and conducts business on behalf of the people of Barbados. It is an inescapable reality of our time.
In his political heyday, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow reportedly once said that the media did not make him and therefore could not break him. It seems, by and large, that such thinking still informs the ruling Democratic Labour Party’s approach to dealing with the media as a major conduit for public communication.
What the party seemingly fails to realize is that conditions today are vastly different from what obtained when Mr Barrow was Prime Minister and leader of the DLP. At the time, the Information Age probably existed only in the realm of science fiction. Barbados then was a two-newspaper, two-radio station and one-television market.
Besides, since Government owned the lone television station and one of the two radio stations, it was able to exercise considerable control over the flow of information and how it was perceived by the public. That is not so today. The Information Age has opened up public access to a plethora of new media. The tables, therefore, have been effectively turned on governments.
Governments today no longer have tight control over what the public sees, hears and uses to form perceptions. The Internet is a major source of public information alongside traditional media. Social media have become increasingly popular, even though the “uncensored” information they put out is sometimes of questionable nature.
For several weeks, public debate has been raging –– a lot of it on the Internet –– in relation to the controversial Cahill waste-to-energy project. Government responded in mid-September with Prime Minister Stuart suggesting at a DLP branch meeting that it was not a done deal. However, a widely-read local blog recently published what appears to be authentic documents showing the public was kept in the dark.
It naturally raises additional questions. Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Senator Wilfred Abrahams also raised the issue last week in the Upper House, referring to a March 3, 2014 letter to the top Cahill executive from the Prime Minister’s Office indicating approval of the project. In the public interest, clarification is needed as this information appears to contradict what Mr Stuart said two months ago.
Mr Stuart’s customary policy of remaining silent is not good enough. In response to Senator Abrahams, comments made by Government Senators Maxine McClean and Verla DePeiza would have led any right-thinking person to conclude that the letter was authentic. Both senators strongly condemned the leaking of official documents, with Senator DePeiza suggesting that whoever was responsible should be made to pay.
What they did not address is why official documents are leaked in the first place –– not just here in Barbados but around the world. It is usually in response to a perception of excessive government secrecy and a feeling by the whistleblower that the information is too important to be withheld from the public. In the Information Age, nothing really is a secret.
Governments have the option of either responding to the growing public demand for transparency and accountability, or remaining silent. If a government chooses the latter route, by the time it comes around to opening its mouth, it may be too late. Irreparable damage may have been done already to its image and reputation.
The incumbent DLP came to power in the 2008 general election on an anti-corruption platform promising transparency and accountability. It has not satisfactorily delivered on this key promise. Isn’t it ironic that the Dems today are facing the same accusations which they used to bring down the BLP? In the circumstances, only the Dems can determine if continuing to remain silent is in their best interest.