A paper presented at First Caribbean Hindu Conference, Queens New York City, October 6th and 7th, 2012.
When I was asked to do a presentation on the Caribbean Hindu media, I became very puzzled; after all not only is there nothing in existence that can remotely be referred to as the Caribbean Hindu media but one has to wonder whether there is a Caribbean Hindu community. Of course there is a global Hindu media and a global Indian media. I mean millions of Hindus and Indians set their watches and clocks these days by the many soap operas that take to the airwaves at certain times five or six days, and characters such as Radica and Dev, Abha and Karan and Yash and Aarti have not only become household names but they also symbolize fantasies and escapism for millions around the world, in addition to providing conversation starters and talking points wherever groups of Caribbean Hindus gather. Then, of course, there is an Indo Caribbean media of sorts, which exists because the US, in particular, provides scope for the existence of what is referred to as niche media – media that serves a particular group of people, more so migrants and their descendents from a particular nations, regions, ethnicity or cultures or combination thereof.
In any case before one can envision a Caribbean Hindu media one has to have an understanding of what media encompasses as well as what it is means to be a Hindu, for a Caribbean Hindu media would entails a merging of these two understandings.
In the 1940s, development efforts undertaken in various parts of the world with respect to application of communication, led to what became known as development support communication. The widespread application of the concept came about because of the problems that arose in the aftermath of World War II. The rise of the communication sciences in the 1950s saw a recognition of the field as an academic discipline, with Daniel Lerner, Wilbur Schramm and Everett Rogers being the earliest influential advocates.
Development Support Communication, is essentially a view that an important role of media is to support development efforts. In this respect DSC is supposed to makes use of all available structures and means of information sharing, not limited only to mass media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines) but also to formal groups and non-formal channels of communication, such as women’s and youth associations, as well as places where people gather…. markets, mandirs, festivals, and meetings, and in these times, social media such as youtube, facebook and twitter. But its contribution is in using these various media in a systemic, continuous, co-ordinated and planned manner, to perform linkage and enabling functions. In the process it must ensure that accountability and transparency are normal practices underpinning all development efforts, and in this latter effort, media, mass media in particular, plays a significant role. And this is why mass media is also referred to as a fourth estate in England and the fourth branch of government in the US, the other three being the executive, the legislative and the judicial. It is this role that led to the media being dubbed society’s watchdog – the role of ensuring that there are always checks and balances on power, that laws and regulations are not violated; that citizens are not cheated, robbed or made to feel unsafe; that criminals are exposed and brought to justice; that the rights of everyone are always protected and fostered and that everyone is allowed fairness and equality of access to opportunities for advancement and to resources in the public domain.
In the context of ethno-cultural enclaves in the Diaspora, such as the Indo Caribbean (and by extension the Caribbean Hindu) community, media is indeed expected to function within the context of DSC, and thus, in addition to supporting and fostering community development, community media must ensure that such developments are frameworked by accountability and transparency on the one hand, and, in keeping with its role as a watchdog, media must also ensure that where lack of accountability and transparency exists, such practices are exposed and victims provided scope to obtain justice. But just as the media sidestepped these roles in Guyana under the PNC, and to some extent under the current PPP government, the Indo-Caribbean media has ditched these roles here in the Diaspora, although, to be fair to them, the Indo-Caribbean media operates under tremendous constraints that makes carrying out such roles rather difficult, if not impossible. And so we are faced with the rather embarrassing situation of being held to accountability and transparency by media outside of our community. In fact, the same can also be argued for a number of other functions of the media. Can anyone remember any investigative reporting ever been done by the Indo-Caribbean media to expose wrong doing and law breaking? There once existed a newspaper, which did indeed focus on investigative reporting but it was quickly stifled for lack of advertising supporting from the community, which, in itself, is an indictment of sorts. Why? Because many were and still are afraid of being exposed, plain and simple.
For starters there are far too many mandirs and other entities in our community that provide no financial accountability and transparency or engage questionable accountability and transparency and which never audit their financial or other records. In fact, some of these entities borrow money from individuals and never pay them back. There are also far too many allegations of financial fraud and misconduct on the part of leaders and pandits with hardly any action taken. For example, one pandit, whose high-handed actions created a split in a certain mandir, decided to leave that mandir with his band of followers and in the process he embezzled $25,000 from the mandir by forging the treasurer’s signature. When he was taken to court he told the judge that the people needed a place to worship and it was his task to find them such a place. But by stealing money and engaging in criminal actions? Worse yet, the pandit was referred to the Pandits Parishad which simply asked him to repay the money. And he proceeded to do so by coercing his followers to donate. Since then he has continued to officiate at functions and ironically preach morality and righteousness. But then that is what many of our community leaders do: preach one thing and practice another.
Furthermore one has to question the manner in which most of these entities hold elections or follow the rules and regulations under which they are governed, including being open to information access as guaranteed under the Freedom of Information Act. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the only information that cannot be made public is information that would pose a threat to safety and stability of the country and such information is deemed ‘classified information’. And so it was with a great deal of amusement that I viewed the response from one Caribbean Hindu leader when asked for information about an event in which he played a key organizing role and for which he was apparently the spokesperson. This leader responded to my request by stating on the one hand that he will not discuss a certain issue and on the other hand he referred to a set of questions as ‘rumors’ and to the journalist asking the questions, yours truly, as ‘an unsuspecting recipient of these rumors”. Of course this leader was confident in his ignorance about the tools of verification that a real journalist possesses, tools that make a journalist one of the most qualified person to investigate and prove or disprove allegations of any and all kinds. This leader, and I would presume to add, most Caribbean Hindu leaders, are unaware about the Freedom of Information Act and its wide-ranging powers. Had he given such a response, say to a similar request from the Daily News, he would have been hauled in front of the courts and forced to disclose the information sought.
In any case, it has often times been found that governing regulations for these mandirs and other entities in the Caribbean Hindu community, as well as the laws of the land are continually being violated. How, for example, can a pandit ask a mandir to provide him with a pension? Or how can a pandit who draws a ford salary live a cadillac lifestyle? How can a pandit be allowed to have it written in a mandir constitution that he is the only person who can officiate at any function at that mandir? How do the same set of people return themselves to office again and again and anyone who dares to question them or their actions, often times find themselves alienated, if not forced out? Or how can Caribbean Hindu businessmen and professionals cheat clients and engage in fraud for extended periods of time without ever been called out by our local media?
Accountability and transparency under DSC are part of what is referred to as the media’s social responsibility. And the fact that years ago, at another conference within this community, the editor of an established newspaper, confident in his ignorance, stood up and declared that media has no responsibility, typifies a huge problem with media practitioners in our community. In fact, Caribbean Hindu and Indo-Caribbean media practitioners who are credentialed and knowledgeable about the roles, functions and all things media, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, although many of them do seem to pass themselves off as actual journalists and qualified media personnel. The simple reality is that media professionalism has been usurped by a ‘master of all trades’ mentality that sees individuals with money transform themselves into media practitioners without any idea about what that truly entails. The result is our community media falls into two categories – infotainment and packaged presentations.
TV personality, Jay Leno, on one of his shows, in displaying a bit of humor, said, “Dan Rather announced today that he’s stepping down as anchor of the CBS News. Though Rather said he hasn’t been able to verify it yet. So it’s not official.” Leno was referring to one aspect of media’s social responsibility – that of verifying all news through a process called triangulation whereby no source is taken at face value unless it can be corroborated by at least two other sources.
Other aspects of media’s social responsibility include:
➢ providing people with every tiny detail of what is going on in the world or any particular place, through exhaustive research and comprehensive coverage
➢ working for the formation of positive and constructive public opinion by engaging in advocacy journalism.
➢ throwing light on issues and related actions via investigative journalism.
➢ contributing towards the solution of issues by presenting the opinion of experts and exhaustive related information
➢ working for culture by providing coverage, information and a variety of views as well as scope for discussions and debates on cultural issues
➢ providing guide lines and comprehensive coping information to the youth and other members of the community so that they can make informed decisions.
➢ condemning and advocating against criminal activities and criminals, as part of a mission to help make society a safer place.
When one analyzes our community media in relation to the above objectives, one cannot help but conclude that our community media is lagging far behind in its social responsibility role. The sad reality is that media in the Indo Caribbean community serves to stroke the egos of those who call the shots. With respect to newspapers, almost all of which present prepackaged news taken from other newspapers in the Caribbean or elsewhere and, unless they get prior permission to do so, are committing a legal violation called plagiarism which is a chargeable crime under the laws of the US, many advertisers are bent on dictating to editors and publishers and when these advertisers are not heeded they withdraw advertising and encourage their buddies to also do so, or worse yet they reuse to pay for advertising already ppublished. And since most newspaper owners do what they do to put bread on the table they have little choice but to kowtow. What is worse, however, is when Caribbean Hindu leaders use their influence to threaten newspapers to drop writers or to refuse to publish certain columns and articles, which may be critical of them, and what they do. In fact it is alleged that one of the organizers of this conference exerted such influence against one newspaper at least once. Of course, under the Freedom of Information Act under any attempts to influence media contents is illegal and punishable under law. And for those who use their advertising as a threat to control media content, there was a precedent setting case in Puerto Rico, which is a legal part of the US, in which a newspaper took an advertiser to court for withdrawing advertising after the newspaper refused to allow the advertiser to dictate its content. And guess what? The newspaper won.
Then there are those businessmen and professionals, who engage in media practice as an offshoot of their business or professional practice, and for whom media becomes what is called infotainment – entertainment with a healthy dose of self-promotion thrown in as pretend information for public consumption.
So where do we start to create a Caribbean Hindu media ethos? After all talking about a Caribbean Hindu media is an exercise in futility unless such a media comes into existence. And who better than movers and shapers of the Caribbean Hindu community to give birth to this process by establishing an internet radio and, if possible, a youtube channel for starters, that would, in addition to providing infotainment, also operate on the basis of social responsibility. Not only are these social media outlets easy to manage and inexpensive to maintain, but they possess the potential to reach a worldwide audience. Perhaps too consideration can be given to a Caribbean Hindu journal operating on the same basis – online and, if feasible, in print as well, supplementing the radio station and youtube chanel. There are enough experienced and highly credentialed media professionals in the Caribbean Hindu community who can be harnessed to help launch these endeavors. And there are eons of Caribbean Hindu youth with technology know how and media credentials who can be tapped to man these ventures. Besides, such measures would also ensure that our young are actively engaged in promoting and protecting the culture as well as taking leadership positions and providing scope to strengthen ties that exist as well as to widen bonds within the Caribbean Hindu community. How can you go wrong under these circumstances?
Additionally, informal channels of communication, usually called the grapevine in media language, should be harnessed to foster Hindu solidarity and unity. For example why can’t all mandirs be accommodated under the umbrella of the Federation of Mandirs? This would not only manifest the concept of unity in diversity but would also indicate the capacity to find common ground amidst difference – both very Hindu traits. Why can’t the Arya Samajis be offered the right of officiating at Ramayan in the Park? For that matter why can’t a Hindu woman be allowed to also officiate? Surely these concrete gestures would speak more about Hindu unity and gender equality than all the rhetoric in the world? Besides, Hindu tolerance and openness dictate that neither is there a single correct interpretation of the Ramayan or any authority that proclaims the rightness or otherwise of interpretations. As a matter of fact there are more than 300 versions of the Ramayan and no two are exactly the same.
Furthermore, informal media combined with social media need to ensure that pandits are kept out of temple and organizational administrations and that they revert back to their defined roles as spiritual preceptors. Also both these media can be effective in combating misinformation, ossified thinking, outmoded customs and traditions, esoteric nonsense, myths and legends and instead, ensure that not only the propagation of actual metaphysics and philosophy which are the lifeblood of Hinduism, but also help to make such ideas relevant and pragmatic to contemporary as well as changing times. In effect we need to ensure that, with respect to the culture, community members do not display abysmal ignorance as has been found to be the case far too often and as illustrated by the following anecdote.
Reading the news, A TV anchor stated, “Hundreds are feared missing or dead in India following landslides and floods caused by torrential rains.”
A couch potato (someone who sits on the sofa or couch all day looking at the TV), responded, “Serves ’em right. What do they wanna go around following landslides and floods for anyway…??!”
As a matter of fact it would serve us right if we continue to allow ignorance to follow us around, informing our attitudes and perspectives. So the informal and social media should be harnessed to ensure that those who man mass media in the Indo-Caribbean community be held to the standards that guide media practice – media ethics, media laws and media responsibilities. For it is only when members of a society aim for a greater level of professionalism, based on knowledge, understanding and application, that the society itself will advance. At the same time these media practitioners may want to consider setting up a media entity that supports media and ensures that appropriate guidelines are followed especially relating to ethics and responsibility. Such an entity can also duly recognize those who stand out in these respects. After all those who pioneered Indo-Caribbean and by extension, Caribbean Hindu media, need to be given their due, especially while they are still around. However, since evolution and qualitatively advancement are natural components of growth, the professionalism of the media that currently exist need to be nurtured and fostered so that the entire community benefits.
Also, in addressing ignorance about the culture and its various components, especially Hindu metaphysics and philosophy, the Indo-Caribbean and broader media would have to be harnessed to foster research and information. Such an approach would ensure that Hindus from the Caribbean not become parrots of mythology and rituals but also scholars of philosophy. As a media friend of mine puts it, “Once philosophy plays a greater role, there will be a deeper appreciation of the Hindu religion and conversion (a huge problem in eh Hindu community) would not be a concern. With this, Caribbean Hindus would be at the forefront of showing the world how a diverse set of beliefs coexists without prejudice against any.“
In short, the time is long gone for Hindus need to stop leaving their intellect at the doors of temples with their shoes and to stop becoming willing victims of those who profit from their ignorance.
Additionally, such research and information must also, of necessity, cover social life. What is the history behind the Phagwah Parade or the Pandits Parishad? Has the Indo-Caribbean Federation been fulfilling its initial mandate? How can we help to redress the scourges of suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism? How do we help the community be more alert to fraud and scams and seek redress when they are taken for rides? What about coping information to help them access resources, be aware of legal ramifications every which way and so on? Why are there so many mandirs in the Caribbean Hindu Diaspora? Where are the mechanisms to support the weak and the needy. Where are the mechanisms to address the high school drop our rates and high incidences of suicides and alcoholism? Where are the foundations and NGOs to help the educationally and medically needy? Where is the charter school? Legal and education Fund?
In closing may I point out the following: Hinduism does not condone lying, cheating, dishonesty, taking advantage of the weak and disadvantaged, ostentatious displays of material trappings and immorality and unrighteousness. All of these traits are frameworked within adharma, whereas the Hindu is guided by dharma. So while the media can play a role in fostering the Hindu outlook, a Hindu community can only be advanced by the sum total of all its members and any Caribbean Hindu media that is established must always be premised on these traits as well as the laws of the land. Additionally any such media can be a starting point to inculcate the powerful leadership concepts of criticism and self-criticism, self reflection and introspection; tools that help leaders, and anyone else to grow and to ditch many of the traits that currently inform Caribbean Hindu leaders – traits such as arrogance, lack of approachability, an attitude that seems to say they know it all and are always right and a mentality that indicates that their views and perspectives are the ones that represent the entire community. At the end of the day, leaders, especially community leaders are servants of the people, not masters whose dictates are absolute. And a professional media ethos is a powerful tool to enable leaders to inculcate the right outlook and perspectives.
1 FAO Corporate Document Repository: http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4338e/y4338e07.htm