Freedom of Expression and Dominica's laws
Apparently nervous about increasing opposition to its policies and practices, the Government of Dominica is reminding its citizens that there are limits to the free expression of opinions in public.
Although we agree that Dominicans need to be more circumspect in what they say on radio, and that there are laws against using threatening, abusive or insulting language towards other persons, the law must never appear to be "spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught," as Honore de Balzac said some time ago. In our view government officials are allowing "big flies" to escape the clutches of the law while they talk about ways to catch the little flies.
Over the past few weeks at least three top government officials have issued warnings especially to people who allegedly use talk shows to vent their anger and incite others to protest, demonstrate and participate in acts of civil disobedience.
For example, last week Daniel Carbon, the Commissioner of Police raised a fire-storm in the press when he hastily called a press conference to warn callers of talk show that they could be prosecuted for violating the law.
At the press conference at Police Headquarters on June 14 Carbon said he was very much concerned with the statements aired on radio talk shows (read Q95) where callers were making statements to incite members of the public to commit acts of lawlessness and violence.
Carbon's words follow statements by angry callers particularly from Marigot where Government had just closed the hospital there because of unhealthy conditions.
Though Carbon did not specifically name the pro-opposition United Workers Party (UWP) Q95 FM, it was rather obvious he was referring to that station and particularly to Matt Peltier's "Hot Seat" talk show. Then Carbon added: "The police force will not allow the Commonwealth of Dominica to experience the errors of 1979 and the early 1980's."
The so-called "errors" that Police Chief Carbon alluded to included widespread revolt and mayhem on May 29, 1979 when practically all groups in Dominica, including church organisations, joined forces to protest the enactment of laws to curb freedom of the press and trade union activity. During the riots Police shot one man (Phillip Timothy) and several other persons were injured. The disturbances led to the overthrow of the Patrick John's Dominica Labour Party government and ushered in the Dominica Freedom Party of Dame Eugenia Charles.
Soon afterwards, Justice Minister Rayburn Blackmore also added his voice to the call for talk shows to avoid violating the law. Blackmore opined last week that although the Constitution guarantees the right to expression, it has to be done within the law since there are limits to liberty and freedom.
A few weeks earlier, Attorney General Levi Peter, speaking to DBS radio, expressed similar views. Peter said he was concerned over certain utterances being made in the media, especially the airwaves that incited violence and the government needed to make sure there were proper consequences in place to deal with them.
Peter said: "I am also concerned about incitement. I find that I hear too much incitement as far as I am concerned particularly on the airwaves and it has become in my view, the view of many, that it has become that you can say whatever you want and claim that it is an opinion.
Over the past few years the Labour Party government have decried the use of "hate talk" on talk shows. Recall that Ambrose George, the then Minister for Information and Constituency Empowerment in 2011 expressed the view that offensive language used on radio talk shows in the United States was responsible for the attempted assassination of Congress-woman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona on January 6, 2011.
In an address on national radio just after the incident, Mr. George opined that "hate language" in the press was responsible for Loughner's actions and warned his listeners that a similar incident could occur in Dominica if the "hate talk" on radio talk shows continued. He predicted that "coming events cast a shadow before them". Mr. George further stated that Dominican talk show "extremists", as he labelled these broadcasters, have one objective: to stir supporters to kill and injure.
The point is Mr. Ambrose George, Commissioner Carbon, Attorney General Peter and Justice Minister Blackmore are all correct to remind Dominican that "hate talk" will destroy the fabric of our society. It must be stopped at all levels and include the Labour Party supporters who said some time ago that they would use drones to destroy the UWP just like Obama use drones to destroy terrorists. Or the prime minister who advised his followers to seek out UWP supporters everywhere and call them traitors to their faces. Then there's the UWP parliamentary representative, who faced the court recently, for saying that if he was a non- Christian he would wipe out the people who are frustrating the electoral reform process.
The point is the law must be a spider web that traps everyone, the big flies and party supporters as well as the little flies.
But Dominicans must make a concerted effort to improve the standards of our public discussions. If we voluntarily restrain ourselves on the radio and in public, the police or the politicians will have to search for excuses to curtail our freedom of expression.