In recent news, the People’s United Party (PUP) held a press conference in which they critiqued what has been called the ‘Mother’s Day Cheer’ program. The ‘cheer’ involves the distribution of about $800,000 to $1,000,000 to United Democratic Party (UDP) representatives for redistribution to mothers in their respective constituencies. No funds were given to the fourteen PUP representatives in parliament. The PUP referred to the program as an act of “blatant political corruption”.
In this reflection, I focus on the media’s coverage of the press conference. I analyze what is included and excluded in the various media reports. I also examine the comments of politicians in the media. I contend that the media as well as politicians are explicitly and implicitly contributing to the ‘normalization of party politics’ in Belize.
By way of this reflection, I am also attempting to improvise and develop a theoretical framework towards understanding and challenging the current political regimes in Belize. I hope to elaborate on this framework in future posts.
Hegemony of the PUDP
The hegemony of the PUP and the UDP, or the ‘hegemony of the PUDP’ for short, refers to the way in which party-politics dominates our society and positions our actions/inactions.
It is the result of several factors linked to economic, social, historical, cultural, and political discourses and practices. It is a historical outcome as well as an active on-going process (also see Iyo and Rosberg elaboration of ‘stasis’ in Belize).
To maintain this hegemony, social agents (politicians, party fanatics, etc.) aim to contain any form of resistance through institutional and social structures such as the media.
The discourses and practices which contribute to this hegemony are generally taken for granted. It is sustained by an array of ‘common sense’ ideas. For instance, there seems to be a common opinion that both major parties are undermining us but that this is ‘just the way it is.’ We are subjected to settle for one of the ‘lesser of the two evils’.
In this light, I contend that the ‘cheer’ program was able to have come to pass precisely because of this hegemony. The ‘cheer’ program is an articulation (expression and linkage) of various discourses (sets of ideas) and practices. For instance, there is a dominant discourse that ‘mother’s day’ is about giving gifts to mothers. There is also the discourse that decisions from the Government or specifically the Cabinet (such as to disburse the funds) are legitimate ‘no mata what’.
In terms of practice, the mother’s day ‘cheer’ bears the traces of similar programs of the past. In December 2013, “it was reported that the Government had approved $2.23 million for the second annual X-Mas Cheer Program” (Amandala). Secondly, it is not only practiced by the UDP. The PUP is equally known to distribute funds based on partisan lines. Indeed, the PUP had participated in the 2013 ‘X-Mas Cheer’.
Thus, the ‘cheer’ program is an outcome of PUDP hegemonic practices. It depended on an articulation (linkage) of various discourses and practices which are ‘common-sense’ and normal.
Media and politics
The media is a major site of the hegemonic struggle. This is where PUDP scandals and resistances to the PUDP are brought to the forefront. They struggle over the meanings and linkages of the ‘cheer program’. They do so in ways which are sensational and tied into the ‘common-sense’ discourse of the PUDP.
Journalists are confronted by multiple internal and external pressures. I think journalists do seek to add a critical edge to their reporting but are considerably constrained. At the institutional level, there are many financial and political interests vested in the media houses which limit critical perspectives of the PUDP.
It also seems that most of the media houses in Belize seek to deliver news in a sensational but ‘neutral’ manner. Presenting the news in a ‘neutral’ manner is a strategy that allows the media to be interpreted as a credible source (and sustain an audience to generate revenue).
The exceptions to this observation of ‘neutrality’ are in the cases of respective PUP and UDP controlled radio stations (Positive Vibes and Wave Radio) and newspapers (The Belize Times and The Guardian). These outlets are influential mediums which contribute to the ‘common-sense’ of the PUDP hegemony.
The Belize Times and The Guardian
The political alliances of The Belize Times and The Guardian newspapers are very obvious. Each newspaper claims that it is the Other political party that is exploiting the Belizean people.
In The Guardian, the ‘cheer’ program is construed as something logical and noble of the Government. “Nothing is wrong” with the ‘cheer’ program was the opinion of The Guardian:
“Dean Barrow took the decision to assist mothers across the length and breadth of this country to ensure that that they got some appreciation during this year’s mother’s day - absolutely nothing wrong with that!”
In The Belize Times, there was no analysis of the cheer program. They simply reprinted the speeches given by the PUP members at the press conference.
Channel 5 News
Channel 5 delivered three segments on the ‘cheer’ program. The first report presented the PUP press conference. The other three segments were interviews with UDP ministers.
In their segment entitled “Opposition bashes Government’s cash giveaway”, we were basically given the footage of the PUP officials who criticized the ‘cheer’ program.
Yet, it is note examining the way in which they introduced the segment. They stated: “The gesture, which has been described as a party political promotion, has been condemned by the opposition.” With the use of the phrase “has been described” a degree of ‘neutrality’ is suggested. In other words, Channel 5 does not state categorically that it is a ‘political promotion’ but rather that it ‘has been described’ as such.
The segment continued with a clipping of the conference in which Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, a PUP representative, dubbed the initiative as a “…blatantly political move… partisan, patronizing and political.”
Channel 7 News
In Channel 7 News, the story included a significant addition. The headline was: “PUP Says UDP Mother’s Day Gift Programme Demeans Democracy”.
As was the case with Channel 5, the title of their story also suggests ‘neutrality’ in the reporting. It explicitly states that it is not 7 News who is stating that the program demeans democracy. This is to say: ‘we at 7 News are not sure if it does demean democracy’.
In their introduction to the story stated, they stated no PUP representatives were included in the mother’s day ‘cheer’ program. However, they also stated that PUP representatives did receive funds in the past Christmas Cheer and that this time around only UDP representatives were included. According to 7news: “That's politics as usual, but today the Opposition cried foul.”
At the end of the conference, Jules Vasquez, from 7News questioned whether or not the PUP had the ‘moral authority’ to call upon civil society organizations (CSOs) to condemn the cheer-program. Jules argument was that if the PUP is guilty of the same, why are they ‘crying foul’?.
As the segment continued, 7 News suggested that there would be no resistance over this:
“But civil society, or the churches for that matter are not likely to be roused by the pots and kettles of the P-UDP. After all, they didn't say anything either when the PUP representatives and standard bearers divided up 15.3 million Belize dollars in the one month before the 2008 general elections. It was shared out in so called housing loans ranging from 400 dollars to eight thousand dollars. A disproportionate number of those loans were distributed in the Freetown Division where Francis Fonseca was and still is representative” (Emphasis added, 7News).
The ‘cheer’ program which perpetuates political dependency is considered as a ‘regrettably’ normal practice.
7News also seems to have been undermining the PUP by stating that Francis Fonseca (the party leader of the PUP) had equally participated in a similar program in 2008.
This style of reporting is commonly used by Jules, especially at PUP press conferences. His line of questioning conjures the idea that the PUP is as guilty or perhaps more guilty of partisan practices than the UDP. (One can validate this by reviewing interviews on the Penner passport scandal and the issue of naturalizing citizens before elections.)
Whereas I agree with Jules (7News) that it is hypocritical of the PUP to challenge the ‘cheer’ program, this line of questioning is beneficial to the PUDP hegemony. This leads to the opinion that the UDP is the ‘lesser of the two evils’. It validates the view by a blogger on Channel 5 who said: “The PUP’s need to shut up because they did the same thing in their time period.”
This is unfortunate because Jules is an astute journalist. It appears that Jules is not allowed to or does not desire to shake the boat too hard. Nevertheless, I would admit that he remains one of the most critical and brilliant journalists at the moment.
Additionally, 7News did not include Fonseca’s full response to Jules question on the ‘moral authority’ of the PUP to condemn the ‘cheer’. I suspect that this exclusion was strategic when one listens to the rest of Fonseca’s response. It indicates a power-interest of 7News to not give a ‘black eye’ to the UDP.
(I am unaware of the explicit political ties of 7News to the UDP. However, Jules father, Nestor Vasques is a prominent UDP supporter [founder?]. Moreover, The Belize Times (PUP affiliated) is of the opinion that News 7 is pro-UDP. Click here for a statement by Belize Times against 7News).
Plus TV News
Plus TV is one of the most recent additions to the various media houses with nation-wide television coverage.
For some persons, Plus TV and Love FM are considered to be non-partisan media houses. I remain pragmatic of such opinions.
In the segment from Plus TV, it was reported that PUP were only complaining about the ‘cheer’ because no funds were given to them.
In their perspective, this is ‘typical political rhetoric’; they stated:
Hon. Balderamos Garcia called on other members of civil society to condemn what she called the irresponsible misuse of taxpayers’ funds to curry political favor and added that it showed the desperation of a Government about to fall. Typical political rhetoric, but whether it will rally the majority is anyone’s guess. (Plus TV, transcript)
Plus TV also included Francis Fonseca’s reply to the question by Jules Vasquez (which was omitted from 7News):
“The point is that as many have said because that is the UDP propaganda; that is their line. It was done by the People’s United Party, so we can do it as well. As I recall, that was not the mandate given to Mr. Barrow in 2008. As I recall, he came into office with your support saying to the Belizean people that he would blaze a new trail, that he would do things differently; that he would be an accountable leader.” (Plus TV, transcript)
The PUP party leader, Francis Fonseca, did not totally reject the idea that the PUP has not executed similar programs. However, Fonseca said that the practices of the PUP were not comparable to the UDP.
Fonseca claimed that the UDP mandate was to be different from the PUP, as reflected in this paraphrase by Plus TV:
“Fonseca earlier insisted that any similar PUP programs were done more equitably and justly than those of the UDP, condemning as “propaganda” suggestions that because the PUP did it, the UDP can too.”
Fonseca also claimed that: “We [the PUP] are here to place on the record that under the United Democratic Party, the corruption and abuse of public funds has become institutionalized” (Plus TV).
Fonseca sought to secure a positive perception of the PUP by claiming that things will be different when the PUP administrates the government: “when we become the government of Belize, it will not be business as usual; there will be accountability” (Plus TV).
(I was not able locate the online news coverage from Love FM; therefore, they are excluded from this reflection. In general, Love Fm does not make sustain critiques against the PUDP hegemony with a preference to promote ‘national unity’.)
The opinions of UDP Ministers
Additionally, on the day of the press conference, two UDP ministers were asked for their opinions on the ‘Cheer Program’.
Godwin Hulse, current UDP Minister of Immigration, was asked for his opinion on the matter. He claimed that because he is a member of ‘a team’ he would not complain about how his team members made their ‘goals’.
His comments were:
“We will take the criticism of course that it’s not given to everybody, but that is the nature of the political beast… But you know there is a thing in Belize, has always been and will continue to be…however you want to do it or say it otherwise, that political parties stay in power by maintaining their majority…”. (Channel 5)
By way of these comments and metaphors, the ideology of party politics and clientelism is re-established.
This also speaks volume to emerging politicians who say they want to join the PUDP in order to change the system. Hulse’s experience and remarks shows that the ‘political beast’ is very powerful.
Anthony Boots Martinez, UDP Minister of Human Development, also sought to bring a closure to the debate by accusing Channel 5 of ‘infiltrating miss-information’ to the Belizean public. He claimed that the media must be ‘objective’:
“Unu deh try mek wah whole political thing, especially Channel Five. Everything Weh dey run da nothing positive…they try fu even infiltrate all kinda misinformation… I have problem with Channel Five weh no report objectively yu know” (Channel 5 transcript).
Three days after, Channel 5 interviewed Santiago ‘Santi’ Castillo, another UDP minister, asking for his opinion on the ‘cheer’. When he was asked why only UDP ministers received funds for the mother’s day ‘cheer’, he used the same argument put forth by Hulse:
“That they were not included this time, as Minister Hulse said in a previous interview, we are part of a team and whatever the team decides to do, we do that. We are team players.” (Channel 5).
Politicians tend to be very cognizant over what terms and meanings are associated with their political practices. Meanings and terms are fought over to silence the contradictions and criticisms which may undermine their authority. They seek to bring a closure to the debates in ways which will secure their hegemony.
This reflection was an attempt to highlight the normalization of party-politics in Belize and the role of the media therein. I discussed the ‘cheer’ program as an example of a discursive and dividing practice of PUDP hegemony.
It was observed that the media houses have attempted to appear ‘neutral’. However, on the basis of what was said/not said and included/excluded in the respective news segments, there are signs of power-interests. The media commentaries as well as politicians all sought to bring a ‘closure’ to the set of meanings and values associated with the ‘cheer’ program.
Some of the major observations are as follows:
- Channel 5 was accused of being pro-PUP. They did not include the question and response segment that challenged the PUP ‘moral authority’.
- News7 sought to ‘balance’ the perspective by stating that the PUP is guilty of similar practices. However, they did not include Francis Fonseca’s full response to the interview question posed.
- Plus TV was of the opinion that the both political parties are expressing “typical political rhetoric”.
- The Guardian and Belize Times are openly polemical newspapers. Each claims that it is the Other political party that is disenfranchising the Belizean people. They are powerful enunciators of the ‘common-sense’ rhetoric.
- The UDP politicians sought to maintain a positive image of themselves and of the UDP. They claimed that it was a ‘decision by cabinet’ which should make the ‘cheer’ program legitimate and silence criticisms.
Citizens must be weary of how the media construct our socio-political realities. I think each of the media sources provided partial but also valuable insights. It is important that we do not become heavily reliant on one media source.
Given the premise that hegemony depends on the linkages of specific discursive-practices, it also means that we can develop a counter-hegemonic struggle to the PUDP. The media as a site and participant of this power-struggle must be seriously interrogated. We must question the (re)presentation and practices of party politics which form part of the ‘common-sense’ reality in Belize. The goal is to un-link discourses and practices of party-politics for a better and more democratic Belize.
For my commentators: Am I Pro-PUP?
Any critique against the UDP gets one branded as being pro PUP (or vice-versa, depending on which is power). This epitomizes the precise ‘common-sense’ notions that need to be deconstructed. The below comments were posted on Channel 5, which are likely to be leveled against me:
“So why dem bex fa? PUP get wa chance fi give back money to deh people but noooo dem neva do it, dem thief it and now dem di cry fowl?...”
“The PUP’s need to shut up because they did the same thing in their time period.”
Areas for further inquiry
-A more serious analysis must seek to examine the containment of the many other historical and contemporary resistances. The contemporary ones include: the SATIM vs. the State/U.S. Capital; Third Party vs. the PUDP; citizens vs. the State/Bz-Guat Discourse; PUP vs. UDP; Teachers vs. the State; Religions vs. the State (gender issue).
-An understanding of the ‘common-sense’ of party politics in the media also requires further analysis of the politically controlled radio stations (WAVE Radio and Positive Vibes). The hosts of these shows are significant contributors to the divisive rhetoric of party politics.
-There is also a need for an analysis on how ‘cheer’ programs contributes to the emotions and perceptions of people towards the party (both PUP and UDP). People should not be simply viewed as ‘dopes’ - people fooled by politicians. What is the short term versus long term benefit? What are some of the perceptions? (Also see the work of Dylan Vernon and Iyo and Rosberg).