Prime Minister Lester B. Bird was reelected on March 9, but critics say the victory was achieved through widespread vote buying and total control over broadcast media in the tiny three-island nation. In the days preceding the vote, many opposition political ads were pulled off the air.
The Bird family and its Antigua Labour Party have long dominated the country’s politics and its broadcast media. One of the three local radio stations is government owned, and two are controlled by the Bird family; the sole television station is run by the state, and the country’s only cable company belongs to a brother of the prime minister.
Two independent newspapers, The Daily Observer and Outlet, provide a forum for dissenting voices. But a government document from May 1996, obtained and published by The Daily Observer, suggests that Bird has long sought to silence them. The document urged the creation of a new daily whose “primary purpose must be to give people an option to buying The Observer and The Outlet [sic]. Those newspapers must be challenged both for advertising and audiences, and the Government must invest in putting them out of business.”
Local journalists suggest that The Antigua Sun was set up in 1997 to achieve this purpose. Owned by R. Allen Stanford, an American financier with close ties to Prime Minister Bird, The Antigua Sun fired its two top editors just before the elections in March, after they staged a sick-out to protest heavy-handed editorial control. A court ruled that the firings were illegal, but the newspaper appealed the decision. A final ruling was expected in early 2000.
In February 1999, the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal confirmed a lower court’s decision upholding the government shutdown of a radio station in 1996. Winston and Samuel Derrick, editor and publisher, respectively, of The Daily Observer, started the station together. They appealed to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom (Antigua and Barbuda is an independent country within the British Commonwealth, with the British monarch as titular head of state). That case is also expected to be heard early in 2000.
On November 19, 1998, the offices of the biweekly Outlet were destroyed by arson. Prime Minister Bird pledged to obtain Scotland Yard’s assistance in investigating the matter, but local journalists have heard nothing about the case since then. At year’s end, Outlet was being printed in Barbados pending the installation of a new press.