Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Caribbean Embrace of Censorship

I remain startled by the fact that so many Caribbean media practitioners and creative folk enthusiastically embrace official censorship and have a tendency to invite such intervention even when those with an interest in restraining free expression don’t initially appear interested.

It is true that free expression sometimes carries with it the hefty price tag of gross irresponsibility, atrociously poor taste and the incompetence of some communicators, but inviting the censors to do what ought to be achieved through self-awareness and self-confidence presents our societies with the worst possible remedy for authoritarian intervention.

There are several striking examples of this, one of which is application of intellectual property laws and regulations.

I believe we move into the dangerous terrain of criminalising speech and expression when we focus on increasingly draconian legislation to deal with the so-called “theft” of intellectual property. Strictly speaking, it’s not the property itself being stolen but the potential financial and other benefits of such property.

So, if you “steal” my poem and publish it as your own, I still effectively have possession of the piece, but am probably denied of any income derived from its subsequent sale as part of a collection of poems by someone else. Should a resolution of this be the arrest and detention of the “thief”?

This is what I confronted during a session at a recent workshop when journalists were practically imploring a chief of police to get involved in the “theft” of online newspaper articles.

Of course, the lifting of online journalistic content for either free or paid dissemination by someone who does not have a relationship with the writer is rather sickening.  I have been a victim of this many times. The practice has meant that as a freelance writer, I lose the opportunity to sell my stuff to a wider range of publishers when they can simply lift what I write for free from some other source – hopefully one that has paid me for my work.

What would satisfy me as the originator of the work would be some form of compensation for use of the article/s. I have no interest in a criminal prosecution. Neither should I. Such an approach invites law enforcement people to stand over the shoulders of everyone producing any kind of creative content.

By inviting the police to deal with this, instead of independent copyright agencies – who are also, hopefully, not greedy and dishonest as some of them are – who are staffed and trained to track, recover and punish those in the breach, we lose sight of the value of freedom to express ourselves freely and fuel the “big brother” aspirations of authoritarian leaders and officials.

The other area of concern is this thing about promoting indigenous creative content through coercion. Throughout the Caribbean there is this mindless hankering for official intervention to “save” what is called “local” content by legislating taste in the broadcast media.

In the first place, there is no sensible working definition of the term “local content” in much of the discussions I have heard on this subject. This is particularly so since, in the Caribbean, we have officially, through Caricom, sought to define a “we” in the context of the people who live in a defined social and economic space.

So under Caricom arrangements, for example, people, enterprises, goods and services are intended to eventually achieve equal status throughout the 15 countries that have signed the Treaty of Chaguaramas. This means that a (creative) good or service produced in Jamaica ought to have ‘domestic’ status in Grenada or Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana. The concept extends, in some respects, to other international agreements. But let’s focus on the Caribbean countries.

Some short-sighted, unenlightened musicians and other content generators in Trinidad and Tobago want “local” to be defined as “born, bred and resident in Trinidad and Tobago”. This nonsense belies the fact that some of our more outstanding performers reside outside of the country. The phenomenal David Rudder happens to be one. It also, more significantly, relegates the music of Caribbean icons such as Bob Marley and Eddy Grant to the level of “foreign” content outside of Jamaica and Guyana/Barbados (which one, Eddy?).
David Rudder the "foreigner"?

This defining of “local”, in turn, is meant to facilitate broadcast content quotas especially in the field of radio. In one instance, citing Canada as a shining example, there is a move to regulate no less than 50% “local” content.

Certainly, this not only contravenes basic conditions for freedom of expression but betrays an ignorance of the international agreements to which Caribbean countries have signed on to among themselves and with others.

How difficult it is to invoke the free expression perspective on these issues!

A more enlightened approach to the application of intellectual property law and a more sophisticated strategy to encourage high-quality creative Caribbean content will considerably help to establish the vital link between creative genius and the development process and not stifle the creative impulse.

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