Citizen Apathy and the Pillars of Democracy
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(15 September 2022) –– I begin by positing that democracy is endangered when citizens fail to be vigilant and engaged in the political process, by failing to demand of government they elect high standards of transparency and accountability. This is not a new position for me, as I have for quite some time used my platforms to advocate for broad civic participation and engagement, and against citizen apathy. I will continue to implore my fellow citizens accordingly. Citizen apathy is a predicate to a failing democracy. Participatory democracy is the means by which democracy thrives.
Trending citizen apathy in Jamaica and the Caribbean
My concerns have increased in recent times as I have detected growing resistance in government to transparency and good governance and growing apathy among the people. This tendency while taking roots in many parts of the world, I am particularly concerned about the trends I see in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. It is quite troubling when these governments lack transparency and act with impunity while an apathetic citizenry seems unperturbed. When the public doesn’t seem to care, political apathy encourages the government to act in an autocratic manner and democracy is thereby threatened. Democracy relies on an electoral process that is free and fair, and an engaged public in the day-to-day activities of the government it elected. The public’s responsibility does not end with voting, but constant vigilance with regard to the government’s actions preserves and strengthens democracy.
Citizen apathy allows government to escape appropriate scrutiny and a level of accountability that is commensurate with good governance. Lack of good governance is manifested through lack of transparency, obfuscations, political bullyism, and corruption with impunity. These are symptoms of a failing democracy, a threat to the rule of law, and evidence of creeping autocracy.
An unsophisticated body politic, and an uninformed or misinformed citizenry, often descends into political apathy, government obfuscations are ignored, and the public generally accepts lack of transparency and lack of accountability as norms. This is a dangerous trend in old and nascent democracies around the world. Corruption becomes rooted in government, and the institutions and foundations upon which democracies are grounded, built, and nurtured will crack and eventually collapse. This trend is reversible only if individuals and groups, including the media are committed to maintain vigil and advocacy to preserve democratic norms.
Preserving Democracy and the Pillars of Democracy
Thus, protection of democracy relies heavily on citizen commitment, participation, and the exercise of the freedoms which are the pillars of a truly democratic society. It means a well-informed public with the freedom to have their grievances heard and an expectation that justice will be served and equal treatment under law assured. Democracy, good governance, and the rule of law rests on four pillars which I believe are sacrosanct.
First is Freedom of the Press. A free and unbiased press is foundational to democracy. Press freedom must be promoted, defended, and protected at all times. An unbiased and probing press is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy. The importance of a free press in a democratic society cannot be overstated. The media must earn and maintain the people’s trust.
We often hear a citizen say, “I trust journalist A”.
And in the next breath the same citizen says, “I don’t trust the media!”
There is a disconnect between perceptions regarding individual journalists and the view of the media generally. Such perceptions about the media must change. It is the media which by the integrity and quality of its reporting that has responsibility to ensure the trust of the citizens who are their primary clients. The credibility of the free press is severely compromised when there is a perception that the press shows deference to the government or is biased by ideology or expectations of government favors, and appears to be confused as to its responsibility to serve the people. Reporting the facts – the truth – must remain distinct from opinion columns and commentary. Reporting must be balanced and unbiased.
While the press bears the ultimate burden in safeguarding its political independence, many political leaders treat certain members of the media or certain media houses as allies while treating others as enemies. In a free society political leaders have a responsibility to promote rather than denigrate or undermine press freedom. And the media must at all times see the people as the primary client and be willing to expose government misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance. Government’s failures to act in the best interests of the people must be exposed without fear or favor.
The second pillar of democracy is Freedom of Speech. Good citizenship thrives in a well-informed public wherein an individual in full freedom and without fear of retribution can opine on issues of concern to the public. Freedom of speech is complementary to Freedom of the press, and vice versa, and the press has an obligation to give voice to the people. The government must refrain from using its power and influence to silence the people and must use its power to ensure transparency in its actions. Truthful and timely information must flow freely from the government to the people. Transparency in government is a hallmark of good governance.
The third pillar of democracy is Freedom of peaceful assembly and the ability to peacefully protest government actions or lack of action. Freedom of peaceful assembly is complimented by Freedom of speech. The people must be free to assemble and air their grievances and freely petition the government on the issues which concern them. The government should not under any circumstances intimidate by force or otherwise those citizens who wish to assemble peacefully to express their opposition to government’s actions or inaction. Government must ensure that the people have access to public spaces to express their grievances, even when peaceful assembly and the message may be inconvenient to the government. Minority or opposition parties must ensure that citizens grievances are not conflated with political opposition even when there are convergences of issues.
The fourth pillar is Freedom to participate in a free and fair electoral process. Failure of large percentages of citizens to participate in the political process of a country is an abdication of citizen responsibility to maintain a democratic form of representative government – government by the people and for the people. Citizens who fail to participate in an election deserve the government they get. They forfeit their rights to complain when the government performs below their expectations. Citizens who fail to exercise their rights to elect political leaders with integrity who constitute the government are as much to blame for the incompetence in political leadership, lack of good government, and corruption in government. They only need look in the mirror and ask themselves how do I impact the political process? The answer is not in political apathy. The answer lies in participatory government.
Need for Strategic Engagement
Jamaicans are often known for their robust approach and responses to issues of all kinds. Yet it seems to be a fact that Jamaicans are apathetic about how the country is governed. I have written about this slide into apathy by the Jamaican public and it should be a matter of concern to every Jamaican who believes in democracy. There is need of strategic engagement across all sectors of the public. The public must make demands of the government, and the response must be truthful and transparent. The press must be responsibly probing and investigating and informing the public when the government fails to do so.
The Opposition party must be equally vigilant and raise issues about government actions or inaction which in their judgment are inimical to the interest of the public, and not merely for political benefit.
Unfortunately, a few Jamaicans occasionally become outraged by government action or inaction and express their dissatisfaction with violent reactions – roadblocks, burning of garbage in the streets, and other activities which are more disruptive than effective. Such ad hoc actions tend to alienate wide public support for their causes which may otherwise be justified. They receive immediate media coverage, but their causes are forgotten within 24 hours. Instead of inconveniencing the public and alienating possible support, peaceful demonstrations are more likely to attract support from the general public.
There are some encouraging signs that Jamaicans may be awakening from the descent into apathy. I am encouraged by the public probing and demand for transparency by the Advocates Network in Jamaica and by recent reporting in the Jamaica Gleaner raising issues related to transparency and citizen apathy. This is the correct conversation we must have if we are to preserve our democracy and advance our nation’s development for the benefit of all the people. Welcome to the movement!
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post