Freedom of Expression- Calypso, Politics and Libel
At the open discussion held at UWI last week hosted by the Dominica Calypso Association, lawyer Duncan Stowe and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Evelina Baptiste made it very clear that notwithstanding the public's perception, no Calypso or calypsonian is above the law in or out of the Calypso season and so calypsonians should be clear that the content of the songs they sing is the truth or they should clear it with a lawyer first before placing the song in the public domain or before performing it on stage.
The topic was led by a panel which featured comments from Patrick Pemberton a judge and co –coordinator of judging activities for the art for well over three decades; Evelina Baptiste not just in her position as DDP but a true Calypso enthusiast; Duncan Stowe, a lawyer and a former two time Junior Monarch of the 70's, whom I rate as one of the most knowledgably critic of Calypso. Finally, as a contributing writer to the genre,I made a presentation on "masking, the way to avoid libelous lyrics."
Ras Kelly who chaired the discussion stated that the event was brought about the staggering $130,000 judgment against Abel "Checko" Jno Baptiste for defamatory comments or aspersions deemed by Ambassador Dr. Philbert Aaron to have brought his name into disrepute.
Stowe commented that though Dominica's laws is mute on word defamation but there is libel and slander in the law books and it is against this background and the fact that no defense was filed an award was made the court having been exposed to one side of the argument.
While Baptiste stated that Checko did not have to say anything at the open discussion, I pointed out that I found it really disturbing that the aggrieved calypsonian sat in silence during the discussion and there were speculations that his loud silence, as I overheard some utter, could be misconstrued as arrogance. But he may have been acting on the advice from some legal source.
The DPP, however, indicated that if the case was challenged then the award could have been much less and as Stowe hinted it could have defended successfully. The legal minds stated that this sum was most likely based on previous rulings within the jurisdiction. One also has to remember, that images and sounds can find a permanent home on the social media and damage persons reputations for life in today's world.
Now, our deliberations seemed like water under the bridge and the legal minds thought that an appeal would be very difficult in the circumstances since no defence was filed. The general consensus was that some accommodation, via a meeting between the two parties, probably initiated by the DCA, could realize a much reduced sum to be paid by Checko. Where are those Calypso cheerleaders and those on Facebook who, by their comments, still allow the calypsonian to think he did nothing wrong. Will they now help him to pay the fine? I doubt they will since they did not even turn up at the discussions.
Mark Marie, the performance rights association representative also had his input stating that his relative received one of the biggest awards a few years ago for a similar infringement; so he urged artistes to be careful about aspersion they make in their compositions. Ras Kelly was quick to point out that the "politics" probably saved the DCA from being sued, because it was at their staged event the song was first aired. So, it would, Hunter's appointment as president served as a buffer for the DCA.
Calypsonians were also warned about being careful about "masking" because this use of language must be done cleverly and not done with such venom as to defame person's character but rather masking should be left to the expert writers, language teachers or legal minds, who have the experience in the clever utilization of hyperbole, innuendo, satire and ambiguity so as not to tread on legal grounds. It was articulated that quite a few calypsonians in the past, brought their lyrics to be vetted by a lawyer and this should continue. Others felt that the DCA should retain a lawyer while others said they reserve the right to the privacy of their lyrics against other competing calypsonians and were more in favor of an independent panel.
Stowe, who I thought was most informative that evening, left us with some snippets of well-crafted lines by several calypsonians including TNT 2014 Monarch Chucky Gordon who presented a masterful rendition, casting aspersions and combining well rum, liquor and drunkenness, with the way the PM coped with leadership pressures in a satirical piece entitled " Wey yuh think?'
'Man, after all, the lady PM is folk too Is several meetings she skip as all around the world she zips With plenty overseas trip, you would think she deserves some sips… Wey yuh think?"
"This is how it's done", Stowe said.