My Gleaner column of March 29, 2017 which i wrote in sympathy with human rights activist Latoya Nugent, arrested under the controversial new Cyber Crimes Act in Jamaica is presented below the following commentary on her arrest and detention.
For a relatively minor action (naming three alleged sexual predators online) that could have been tried under civil libel laws, the Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Investigation Branch descended on Nugent and fellow activist Nadeen Spence in a massive show of force, arresting Nugent and keeping her in jail for the night. After attempts to set an unreasonably high bail of over a million Jamaican dollars failed, the police reduced the amount to station bail of J$100,000 and released Ms. Nugent the following day. On a point of comparison, the bail for 64-year old Moravian pastor Rupert Clarke who was caught in flagrante delicto with a 15-year old girl, was only J$800,000.
Ms Nugent’s case has been postponed twice now with the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) taking a personal interest in the matter. The DPP has ruled that the Cyber Crimes Act does not permit criminal prosecution for libel and defamation. With the case now slated to return to court in May we await the outcome of what is looking very much like an attempt by the police to intimidate activists and freedom of speech in cyberspace. Noteworthy is the fact that the new date scheduled for the case — May 17th — happens to be the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia when Ms Nugent and others were planning to hold a pride march.
In the meantime a forum has been organized to discuss the Cyber Crimes Act at the University of the West Indies this Wednesday, April 5. Appearing on the forum will be Dr. Canute Thompson, who is suing Nugent for defamation regarding her allegations that he has sexually abused girls.
The sympathy of the public and the media in Jamaica too often seems to lie with the perpetrators of rape rather than the victims or as Ms. Nugent prefers to call them, the survivors. For instance a Jamaica Observer article covering the statutory rape case of Ruper Clarke headlined the article thus: “Court to hear case of girl in Moravian pastor’s plight tomorrow.”
One radio station kept referring to Ms. Nugent as ‘the controversial Latoya Nugent’ every time they reported on the case. But by that token they should also say ‘the controversial Marcus Garvey’ or ‘the controversial Sam Sharpe’ every time they mention the names of those national heroes because till very recently both had criminal records. The media of the time vilified them but that hasn’t prevented them from taking their rightful place in the pantheon of Jamaican heroes.
In that sense Latoya is in excellent company…she is a latter-day Nanny, a heroine for our times, a contemporary warner woman. She is exactly the kind of leader Jamaica needs today–independent, uncompromising and fearless. An inspiration. Let the Jamaican state try to arrest or detain that. In fact the powers-that-be should be wary of inadvertently creating a martyr who could easily metamorphose into a new leader. They should learn from history and Mr. Garvey himself.
Below is my column Garvey’s Lesson:
“Real leaders don’t care whom they offend, if in offending they are serving the cause of humanity and working for the good of their country. Jesus Christ was the greatest offender when he was on earth, and we ought to take a leaf out of his book in this respect.”
Marcus Garvey, arguably Jamaica’s premier national hero, certainly knew what it meant to be considered offensive for when he wasn’t being sued for libel he was being denounced as a villain by powerful interests both at home and abroad. One of the more frivolous lawsuits he faced was in 1930 when a Mrs Barnes-Haylett, a dressmaker who lived at the corner of Church and Beeston Street, sued Marcus Garvey’s newspaper The Blackman for libel, demanding damages of £1000, a small fortune in those days.
At the time Etheline Marjory Barnes-Haylett earned only £3 a week yet was represented by none other than his learned counsel, Norman Manley, while Marcus Garvey, in an effort to save money, as he did in the US, represented himself. The Gleaner carried blow-by-blow accounts of the trial with some of the in-jokes traded by Norman Manley and the judge at Garvey’s expense reminding me of the virtual heckling of the lawyer representing Tivoli victims by lawyers for the state at the recent West Kingston Commission of Enquiry.
The offending article in The Blackman described the formation of a new club at premises occupied by Barnes-Haylett, suggesting it was a place that might offer opportunities for whist drives and games of poker and twenty-one. Appearing under a section called Night Life the article said that the club had enlisted a large number of female members and that this itself should contribute to the club’s success promising ‘crazy’ times ahead. The writer of the article, one Thoywell Henry, who affected an American slang style of writing, said he had acquired this information from Clifford Parker, a customs officer, and a member of the club whom he described as a ‘spree’.
Mrs. Haylett complained that this account had damaged her reputation and that of the Amateur Choral Union which she had founded at her home. The word ‘female’ suggested prostitution, she said, and there had never been any mention of whist drives or poker or ‘sprees’. The organist of the club confessed that the mandate of the Choral Union may have been extended somewhat. “We…may have…sung secular songs but the original intention of the organisation was to sing hymns and songs in church, and not on the stage.”
I was struck by the following exchange between Garvey and Mrs. Barnes-Haylett who argued:
“…that false statement about me should not be in the Blackman making attacks on my character and reputation. My character is priceless.”
“Mr Garvey: We know that and would not take that away from you under any circumstances.”
Another striking thing about the reported exchanges is that it seems in those days witnesses were allowed to answer back and even question the lawyers cross-examining them.
Mr. Garvey: You know that Mr. Mends is a politician, don’t you?
Witness: What is a politician? (Laughter.)
Mr. Garvey: A person who indulges in politics.
Witness: And what is politics? (Laughter.)
Mr. Garvey: The science of Government.
Witness: I don’t know about that: I am only a dressmaker (laughter).
Clifford Parker too tried to claim damages of £100 but didn’t get very far with this. Marcus Garvey suggested that the entire libel suit was concocted by a group of people, including Barnes-Haylett and Parker, who thinking that “Mr. Garvey of Somali Court” was a man of means, had planted the story on one of the Blackman’s reporters.
What is curious is that the lawsuit did not allow time for the Blackman to publish an apology before proceeding to court. When a clarification was published after the fact Barnes-Haylett complained that it had caused her more grief, as the police had come to her premises to investigate. She therefore was claiming aggravated libel. Marcus Garvey challenged her to provide evidence of the visit of the police.
After much court time was taken up deciding whether Garvey was even liable for the damages or not, as he insisted he was not the managing editor of the publication, the judge awarded the plaintiff damages of £30, a considerably smaller sum than the £1000 she had demanded.
How interesting that today no one remembers Mrs. Barnes-Haylett or her “priceless” character while the ‘libellous’ Marcus Garvey is a national hero and widely acknowledged as a global leader whose influence far exceeds the shores of the country he was born in. The fact that we keep repeating history suggests we’ve yet to learn from it. Perhaps as someone once said “The only lesson you can learn from history is that it repeats itself.”