What price press freedom?

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When you were a child and got punished for doing something bad did you ever wish for a world in which wrong was right and right was wrong? Because then, you resentfully imagined, you might not find yourself the target of a beating or scolding so often? Well, I’m beginning to think that I may be living in such a world after all.

There are several reasons for thinking this. The arithmetic of crime and punishment in Jamaica for one. Take the fact that Former Commissioner of Customs Danville Walker was found guilty of breaching the Contractor General Act for which the maximum fine was only J$5,000 (approx US$35) or 14 days in prison.

Let’s add to that the fact that reputed gang leader Tesha Miller was recently fined the maximum penalty of J$100 (under US$1) after pleading guilty to one of two counts of making a false declaration to Jamaican immigration officials. In effect Miller was found guilty of entering Jamaica under a false name. In what I can only assume was sarcasm at the paltry sum involved Parish Judge Sancia Burrell in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court imposed the fine accompanied by the following statement:
“I hope you are prepared to satisfy the maximum fine and I hope you are able to call a relative or family member to help you if you can’t manage it”.

In contrast section 9C of The Town and Communities Act specifies that “any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.”

Well, clearly using “indecent or obscene language” publicly is 15 times worse than pretending to be somebody else, in essence trying to mislead immigration officials, in Jamaica. And it’s twice as bad as breaching the Contractor General Act, to calculate by the dividend of the maximum number of days one can be sentenced to prison for. Keep in mind that the Act in question is designed to curb corruption in public office, one of the scourges of the developing world. Clearly this crime is viewed with mild disapproval and no more in Jamaica.

The boom shot however is the new Cybercrimes Act under which human rights activist Latoya Nugent was arrested and charged for allegedly publishing information on social media accusing several persons of being sexual predators. According to a report in one newspaper, “Under Section 9 (1) of the Cybercrimes Act, which speaks to the use of a computer for malicious communication, in the case of a first offence, Nugent faces a maximum fine of J$4 million or imprisonment of up to four years, or both, if convicted.”

Blow wow, well blow me down with a feather. Do the math and tell me what you think the Jamaican justice system is telling us about which crimes it considers serious and which ones to rap us on the knuckles for. Tell me why we’re not to conclude that the Jamaican state feels much more threatened by a freedom of speech violation than nefarious crimes such as sidestepping the laws of the nation or brazenly lying to officials about one’s identity.

Senior Trinidad and Tobago journalist Wesley Gibbings says that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are really hard sells in the Caribbean, that deep down Caribbean societies don’t believe in these freedoms. Apart from “financially induced self-censorship” new cyber legislation is a threat, according to Gibbings, who was speaking at a forum on press freedom at Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, because any statement viewed as having embarrassed someone can be considered libelous and subject to punitive fines. Cyber legislation is being invoked under criminal law so that you can be arrested and jailed for being insulting, ‘unpatriotic’ and other such vague and loosely defined terms.

While May 3 is celebrated as World Press Freedom Day there are different metrics of press freedom, according to Gibbings some of which may not be relevant to the Caribbean. Reporters without Borders compiles an index in which Jamaica ranks 8th out of 180 and Trinidad 34th. Despite this says Gibbons “in the Caribbean journalists are not being killed, but many stories die,” though in most places stories die because journalists are killed. But in the Caribbean, according to Gibbings stories die without journalists being killed, silenced by threats to their jobs and self-censorship so the metrics need to be compiled in a much more nuanced way.

The other problem Gibbings feels is that there is little real interest in investigative journalism. “…whether you look at civil society and their representative organizations, journalists themselves, the corporate sector, the state—none of them really want it because a lot of them really wouldn’t last too long in their positions if you had proper investigative journalism.”

This is a chilling realization borne out by the calculus of crime and punishment detailed at the beginning of this column. What it makes clear is that too many sectors of society have a serious interest in maintaining a corrupt status quo, and will use the legal system to suppress those who would expose the wrongdoing while giving a bligh to the wrongdoers.