Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Can We Just Do As We Please? Freedom Of Expression Examined

The issue of freedom of expression has revolved inside and around my head for a few weeks. It was never far from the forefront of my mind because as I read each day I get hints of things having been censored; as I listen to the radio, I hear 'emptiness' as callers' comments are screened; on television I see and hear things that I wish my little child should not see or hear and I head for the mute button or the off button. I wont go into a treatise on the subject. That I will leave to a nice article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy', from which I borrow a few points:

  • The topic of free speech is one of the most contentious issues in liberal societies. If the liberty to express oneself is not highly valued, as has often been the case, there is no problem: freedom of expression is simply curtailed in favor of other values.
  • Free speech becomes a volatile issue when it is highly valued because only then do the limitations placed upon it become controversial.
  • Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because speech always takes place within a context of competing values.
  • The task, therefore, is not to argue for an unlimited domain of free speech; such a concept cannot be defended. Instead, we need to decide how much value we place on speech in relation to the value we place on other important ideals.

The notion that speech and expression should be limited has been based on certain principles. First, the 'harm' principle, based on the philosopher, John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty:

'...the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'.

One can explore what that means for many decades. But, some say the harm principle does not go far enough, and look to the 'offense principle', that can act as a guide to public censure: offending someone is less serious and easier to prove than harming someone.

But do arguments for limitation sit consistently with those of upholding freedom of expression as a basic human right, as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)? The ICCPR recognizes the right to freedom of speech as "the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression". Furthermore, freedom of speech is recognized in European, inter-American and African regional human rights law. I believe that they do because, in practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on "hate speech".

Let's look at a few aspects of freedom of expression in Barbados. We know that the major local newspapers use censorship: the Advocate and Nation both edit material that they produce themselves as well as material submitted by others for publication. This is part of normal editorial policy, but by removing certain text they are watching for harm and offense with the spur of the sanction of legal complaints, and seeking to stay within bounds of public good taste. I have 'suffered' from this, in the nicest way, when my letters or articles to both papers appear in a form other than that which I submitted. Some of the change is driven by lack of space, and some by a desire to keep a certain tone. I always tell the papers that I will publish the full text as submitted on my blog so, they may edit, but I will say in full what I wanted to. However, I am not saying anything harmful and I try to not be offensive. My sense of humour and my message on economic issues may not be to everyone's liking.

We know that censorship exists in local radio and television broadcasts. The radio call-in programs can be the most evident when the airwaves go silent and are then filled with commentary without context, after a producer has decided (with the help of a delay) that something someone was saying breached some guidelines. Again, fear of legal complaint is high on the list of sanctions, and can extend to loss of broadcast licence. But preserving good taste is also important.

We also know that in 'culture' censorship exists: police remove artistes from stage; Calypsos are vetted by a committee before public performances; songs that are lewd or suggestive may not be played or played with some censoring.

In all of these instances, censorship is watching for possible harm and offence through defamation, racist remarks, libelous or slanderous remarks. But the watch is also regarding public good taste and things covered by other laws. Occasionally, something slips through. For me, the most glaring slip occurred soon after I arrived in Barbados, with the 'Lynch incident' in mid-2007 when a Cabinet Minster disliked a question aired about his source of income; he took umbrage and left the studio. He threatened to sue and the radio station settled out of court. I recall at the time thinking the walk out was farcical, because I genuinely believe that the question was legitimate. We need transparency in government and information on sources of income should be part of that.

I have wanted to ask the Minister about this ever since and wished that I had had the courage or effrontery to raise it with him when we met face-to-face for the first time some weeks ago. But, we were all enjoying the liming too much and I did not see the need to perhaps sour any one's mood.

We have the issue raising its head in many ways in the Internet age, where one real problem is how to stem the flow of material when publication can be exercised so freely. We also know that technology changes faster than does the law, so excesses may not fall into existing categories and can go unchecked.

In Barbados, the blogs perceived as being the more popular have seemingly quite different attitudes to freedom of expression. One blog has a comments policy that ways "As far as our Comments Policy goes we have none" (see Barbados Underground Comments Policy). In keeping with that, BU lets a lot of offensive (and possibly harmful) material flow over its space, including clear profanities. That may be problem in terms of whether it is consistent with the terms for running the blog as stated by the host, WordPress.com; I discussed this a few days ago. Ironically, or sadly, that blog says "We love comments on BU", but reality is that it appears to like only certain comments and those supportive of its positions. A recent case where a blogger's anonymity had to be exposed due to complaints about material posted on a blog, is leading to a reassessment by BU of its policies, but as yet no new 'comments policy' has been elaborated fully. An interesting corollary to the 'no policy' (and to me it is an evident contradiction) is the clear tendency for BU and it would appear some commentators on the blog, to try to limit comments to only those expressed by 'Barbadians'. More on this later. It does delete spam, however. Comments may be posted as 'Anonymous' and multiple handles can be used by a single commentator.

The other blog seems to limit strictly its tolerance for offending material by moderating comments--in part through some automatic filtering of so-called 'spam', which may mean that certain words trigger the filter as does the location of the sender (e.g. Russia is suspicious), but also through actual people vetting comments. The latter extends to a list of commentators on an 'always moderate' list--sort of known offensive offenders. BFP also has as policy of automatically rejecting comments posted as 'anonymous', for the simple reason that it's easier to follow discussions where commentators have a title-similar to my own policy. They also restrict commentary undr multiple handles, and can make this more effective (but not fool proof) by checking IP addresses. See Barbados Free Press Policies for more information.

I moderate every comment received on this blog, and spam filters also capture most of those annoyances well. One effect of that is the slower time it takes for comments to become public. I can moderate by mobile phone and often do. But, I am also not able to deal with comments at a moment's notice, having a life to lead and no staff to whom I can delegate. One day?

In the spirit of free-flowing discussion there is still place for censorship--unless one believes that effective sanctions do not exist. In other words, the can be no bounds because no one will hold those bound firmly. Again, within a country that could apply, but not internationally.

On 'Barbadians only need comment'. This is one of the strangest notions I have come across in the Internet age. I cannot fathom how you limit comments and input to a nationality except if you use something like a national identity number as an 'access key'. Therefore, if it were the USA one could envisage using the unique Social Security Number as an key. But how would one do that in Barbados? You cannot tell who is a Bajan by a name, and on the Internet, where names can be made up, this is even more evident. Why would 'Combermere Lad' be Bajan when it could really be a cover for a wayward foreigner to say off-colour things while seeming to be Bajan. Surely, a ploy like that is too obvious. Likewise, why believe that 'Trenchtown Posse' claiming to be a born and bred Jamaican has any grain of truth?

Why would one take text submitted in dialect as indicative of Bajan-ness or lack of it? Writing can be learned and there is no standard for dialect. Some friends and I have been reading the posts a bit carefully, and a linguist pointed out that it's hard to write in dialect because it's really oral so crafting the words takes effort. It's really something only quite intelligent people can do well as it's akin to being multilingual in a written sense. I can relate to that, having had to switch languages for work purposes and knowing the problems of constantly moving from say written English to written French.

Can Bajan-ness be the 'feel' of the comments? I really do not know but it seems totally senseless. Like looking down from a plane and trying to determine which of the cars seen from the air was being driven by a local or a foreigner. Overall, I conclude it's a crude way to keep dicsussion closed and the simpler thing to do would be to make the site 'members only', using whatever signing in protocols one chooses, and that could be as sophisticated as national ID numbers.

So, where does that leave us? I like to feel that Barbados' government espousing principles consistent with democratic traditions mean what is said. We will see soon enough. Some recent incidents point to more than a little tension between the rights of the media to express itself freely, within the bounds set out before, and the desire of certain high-ranking persons to direct those expression. The harm and offence principles may see their day in full light soon and the outcome will be long lasting.

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