Saturday, 20 July 2019

The flickering light of free expression

Using the opportunity here to raise multiple issues, instead of the usual one – not that they are unrelated.

Every now and then you see a social media post (none of which will be repeated here) and you wonder whether the marketplace of public opinion is indeed having the impact of leveling off extremes – of separating wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, lambi from freshwater conch.

The idea behind freedom of expression is that out of the unmediated exchange of news, information, creativity and opinion, there emerges an eventual equilibrium that takes people closer to rational conclusions, facts, and enlightenment.

This is the exact opposite of what propaganda seeks to achieve – especially when it seeks to stifle dissent by creating conditions for an imbalance in information flows. This is also the dynamic that disinformation sets out to undermine and destroy.

Our authoritarian instincts clearly also do not sit comfortably with rights and freedoms. Freedom of expression is thus not readily recognisable, in such a context, as a multi-pronged process involving not only the dissemination of expression, but an ability to seek out and to access expression.

Recent discussions on the nature of our Freedom of Information Act exposed a lack of understanding of such a scenario. Access to information is, in fact, a freedom of expression issue insofar as such a right identifies an ability to also research and to acquire information – official information in particular.

The Media Association’s (MATT’s) nuanced response to the challenge was thus spot-on, and the ensuing official responses indicative of an instinct toward the authoritarian.

All of this long-windedness to come to another, as I said not unrelated, point: The perpetual exclamation that “Caricom is ah waste of time” and has achieved nothing in its 46 years.

I have spoken with multiple regional decision-makers in the Caribbean who have, in not so many words, expressed such an uninformed view – despite the existence of over 20 institutions, and numerous areas of functional cooperation that keep some of them in office.

Two developments reminded me of this recently. The first relates to online responses to the news that internecine conflict arose during a caucus of Caricom heads of government in Saint Lucia last week when the subject of the Caribbean Development Fund (CDF) came up.

The other has to do with the fact that the people at the Carifesta Secretariat in T&T had lumped Caricom journalists with “foreign” journalists in tailoring the event’s media accreditation process.
First, the CDF issue. It is disturbing that people who know more than I do are not chiming in on the question of imbalances (“disparities” is the word used in the official literature) in the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) process, and what the CDF was designed to achieve.

There is need for a mature discussion on this – for all 15 member states to take a “deep breath” on this issue, as Dr Rowley put it, because Jamaican intransigence (even as the Golding Report proposes a strategic opting out of it all) can provide an opportunity to revisit the old MDC/LDC formula.

More on that another time. Now on to Carifesta XV. It has taken the patience required of my very first point – acknowledging a marketplace that mixes sense with nonsense – and an understanding of point two, regarding the ignorance that prevails on things Caricom, to have not lost my cool when I realised that the Carifesta folks in Port-of-Spain had not instinctively recognised the event as a quintessential Caricom activity.

Further, that the region’s single market process, to which we are bound both by domestic legislation (the Caricom Act and others) and international law (the Treaty of Chaguaramas) accords (qualified) equal treatment to all nationals of countries signed on to the revised treaty.

This forms the basis of the advocacy some of us have engaged in over some rather hard years to promote recognition of categories such as media professionals and entertainers (“artistes”) as worthy of such status. But there is also an accompanying moral obligation.

Thanks to Keith Subero, in particular, for helping to have the initial Carifesta error corrected – if it was considered to be an error based on ignorance in the first place.

This country’s gradual passivity on Caricom affairs over the years has indeed been taking its toll. So much so that the marketplace of free expression on things Caricom is served by rather dim lighting at the moment, both here and in our immediate neighbourhood.

Originally published in the T&T Guardian - July 10, 2019

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