Friday, 2 November 2012

Impunity and Free Expression in the Caribbean

Efforts to encourage Caribbean journalists and others to observe the Day to End Impunity in 2011 were spectacularly unsuccessful. This owes much to the fact that the word “impunity” is not one that resonates very clearly in the public domain in this part of the world.

This is not because freedom of expression and other freedoms are not successfully curtailed without any recognisable consequence for perpetrators, but that our authoritarian culture, derived from a repressive colonial past and dysfunctional political culture, does not readily predispose many of us to easy recognition of acts of impunity.

For example, when a newspaper editor is threatened and defamed via a concerted email and online campaign in Trinidad, there aren’t high expectations that the person suspected of being behind it will ever be brought to justice. It is written off as a joke.

Likewise, concerted efforts to smear the characters of two female investigate journalists in the same country are dismissed as intolerance by the media for the views of anyone but their own.

This year, the campaign to end impunity will focus on the plight of Guyanese newspaper columnist, Freddie Kissoon, who has been physically attacked on more than one occasion, including instances in which he has been punched and had faeces thrown on him. There is hardly a body of public opinion signally outraged that despite very good clues, no one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes.

Recognising that freedom of expression does not only include the write to express oneself, but the right of others to seek and access such expression, an act of impunity can also said to have prevailed when the state broadcaster in Guyana deprived persons from one part of that country from accessing its radio and television signals because of contentious budget cuts owing much to the interventions of the political representatives of that region of the country.

Acts of impunity may also occur when labour laws, the right to associate and the right to assemble are breached. For example, there was the recent case of a senior journalist in Grenada who was dismissed by his Barbadian publisher on highly-contestable grounds related to a story he refused to retract and which was later found to accurate. The conditions of his dismissal appeared clearly to conflict with existing industrial relations norms and there is the view that a level of passive complicity has been displayed by the government of Grenada as a response to what some contend is an act of injustice.

Many in the international free expression community sometimes also have to be convinced that someone need not be killed, kidnapped, tortured or jailed in order to be silenced. Silence can come from the loss of a newspaper job, the fear of public castigation or shame when the threat of embarrassing personal information looms and the manipulation of otherwise valid regulatory conditions related to the operations of broadcasters.

A culture of impunity can be said to be in existence, according to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) “when those who seek to control the freedom of expression of others do so knowing that it is unlikely they will be held accountable for their actions.”

The impact of such a culture of impunity can be recognised in the Caribbean environment without searching very far. Despite our claims of public candour and overflowing creative expression, there are taboo issues many would not touch, many of which challenge existing political orders.

Haiti is not representative of the rest of the Caribbean in this, but the unresolved murders of Jean Dominique, Brignol Lindor, Jean-Rémy Badio, Robenson Laraque and Ricardo Ortega send a very ominous signal. In Guyana, broadcaster/political activist, Ronald Waddell was killed six and a half years ago with neither a prosecution nor conviction forthcoming.

IFEX warns us that all of this can lead to a world in which people are afraid to speak out. Where criticism is stifled. Where the hard questions don’t get asked. Where the powerful don’t get challenged. The result is a world where free expression is silenced.

This is the scope and scale of the challenge for us in the Caribbean.

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