Saint Lucia
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When Local Lawmakers Sought To Choke Free Expression!

On May 3 freedom-loving citizens everywhere, journalists in particular, marked World Press Freedom Day. Here in Saint Lucia the day was mentioned by one news outlet. Not unexpectedly, there were no good wishes from local politicians. Relations between our elected representatives and the press have never been other than cordial at best. In more recent times we’ve not been on speaking terms, save for the now commonplace ambushes outside the House, before the main event inside. It should also be acknowledged that the politicians are not wholly to blame. Local journalists have for too long been standing too close to the trees to notice the forest.

We seem to have forgotten that the ideal relationship with our elected governments can best be described as a friendly antagonism, not hatred, taking into account we are both—government and the press—supposed to be operating in the best interest of the country. In a democracy it is vital that criticism of government be accepted as part of the process of good governance. It becomes counter-productive when journalists, as well as regular citizens, cannot without   fear of reprisals question government policy.       

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, let us remind ourselves of how close we came to rendering toothless our constitutional right to free expression back in 2003. The following is taken from my book, Lapses & Infelicities:

The United Workers Party was once again at war with itself. Marius Wilson had quit to become an independent member of the House of Assembly. Arsene James replaced him as Leader of the Opposition, which left the government effectively unopposed, free to do as it pleased. In consequence, it was for the press to question the actions of a government whose leader had publicly denounced the media as being “without legitimacy.” To be fair, the prime minister had later apologized for his remarks, but not before claiming at a specially convened gathering that he was “a victim of abuse, vilification, slander, invective, disrespect and lies.” He made particular reference to press coverage of the so-called Rochamel Affair.

The prime minister said politicians in his position had but one recourse: to take the media before the courts. He neglected to mention the option to use tax-funded resources at his disposal, including televised press briefings, to explain matters of public concern.  

“I am not at war with anyone in the media,” he said, “but I cannot ignore the fact that over the last several weeks we have been experiencing a media terrorism such as we’ve never seen before. It is terrorism. Terrorism.” He spoke added volumes when he cited the impact of press criticism on his personal life: “I have children and an ex-wife. They feel what is said about me.”

If attendants at his press conference took the prime minister’s apology as a sign of future better relations, the November 25 sitting of the House gave them good reason to rethink when the education minister Mario Michel introduced Section 361 of the Revised Criminal Code. He read   from a document: “Everyone who willfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he or she knows is false, and that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.”

He emphasized that the clause sought to penalize the deliberate spreading of information that the disseminator knew to be false and likely to cause injury—”not to a person, but to a public interest.”

He added: “Anyone who believes he has the right to be protected by the law from prosecution after deliberately publishing false information that injures a public interest ought to have his head examined.”

As for the tourism minister, Menissa Rambally, she had “seen instances of media terrorism in this country,” which she said had “fortified [her] belief in the rectitude, sanity and logic of Section 361. No one has a license to say or to publish what they want, where they want with impunity—particularly about vital public interests and private concerns, for example where reputations are concerned.” She did not define “vital public interests.”

In answer to my questions when he later appeared on TALK, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony insisted “the government has a right to protect the reputations of individuals and matters in the public interest.” He said he was at a loss to understand why the press feels it is in the public interest to peddle “untruths and calumny.” I pointed out that for eons we’ve had laws protective of free speech, as well as the citizen’s good reputation. That our libel and slander laws took care of the prime minister’s concerns. I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by the government’s responsibility to protect “the reputations of matters of public interest.”

He said: “Public interest depends on circumstances. The state has a responsibility to protect a public interest that arises out of protesting the collective . . . the interests of the public as a whole may not have a remedy for wrongdoing by individuals. The law may provide in some instances by way of defamation . . . but there are some things that don’t allow for that kind of remedy.”

I asked: “Are you thinking of a government department? Are you saying criticism of a government might warrant punishment under Section 361” Generally considered by virtue of his PhD an expert in constitutional law, the prime minister chose to be evasive, vague at best. “People have to understand that while they have the right to criticize politicians, equally it cannot be the case that to injure the reputations of politicians with impunity. The very business of democracy and of politics and the protection of the public interest requires that politicians also have a right to protect their reputation.” I pressed him harder to illustrate the difference if any between a matter of public interest and a public interest per se, and why they were not covered by existing laws. Career politician that he is, the prime minister demurred and moved instead to less slippery terrain.   

So much for Section 361 not being related to individuals and their reputations. So much for its main concern being those who wrote or spoke falsely of government interests, including stories that could adversely affect the tourism industry.  

In a surprise House announcement in November 2006, Prime Minister Anthony revealed his government had decided to repeal 361. Since its implementation the bill had caused a considerable amount of debate and discussion, he said. “Even those who have championed Section 361 have now come to accept that it would be extremely difficult to obtain a successful prosecution under the section. They all accept that the requirements for obtaining a successful conviction are rather onerous.”

Why? “The prosecution has the responsibility to convince the court that there is willful publication of the statement,” said the prime minister. “They must prove the publisher of a statement actually knows the publication is false and it will cause injury or mischief to a public interest.”

Perhaps the silence of the MPs on World Press Freedom Day 2023, had everything to do with the general perception that Saint Lucia has for quite some time now been without a press. Or maybe the government chose to acknowledge several former members of the local media, recently absconded.