On Freedom of Expression and the selectively convenient conscience
THE headline on the front page of the “Catholic Standard” of 10th January 1982 reads: GRAVE PRESSURE ON PRINTER TO STOP PRINTING STANDARD.”
This was during the period when the PNC government controlled every export item through its several institutions, and newsprint was only obtainable through the Guyana National Trading Corporation (GNTC).
The article outlined the pressure being brought to bear on the printer to stop printing the “Catholic Standard” and states in the concluding paragraphs as follows:
&When in mid-1978 Angal’s Printery agreed to print the Standard, after the Guyana National Newspapers had refused to print it any longer, Angal’s was a thriving job-printing business. Now it has no paper to fill the many orders it receives, while other printers continue to receive their quotas.
&The pressure put on Angal’s is yet another attempt to suppress the Standard. The denial of the facilities of the government-owned printery, which had been afforded by the “Chronicle” for many years before it was acquired by the government, caused a reduction in the size of the paper.
&Difficulty in obtaining bond paper caused a reduction in the number of pages.
&Now pressure is being brought to stop the printing of the paper altogether.”
The atrocities committed against the Mirror newspaper and independent journalists by the PNC government, as well as other opponents, which included imprisonment and murder, is well-documented and needs no elucidation within this limited space.
Members of the Roman Catholic fraternity, the “Catholic Standard” and the “Stabroek News” once represented the voice of truth and reason. They fought relentlessly, at great risk to their operatives, for the restoration of democracy in this country and once advocated uncompromising adherence to law and order.
Their advocacy for truth and justice was once impeccably unprejudicial; but today Catholic priests and editors of the “Stabroek News” have become vocal, and have even teamed up with opportunistic forces to support someone who continuously breaks the law, someone who continually distorts the truth, someone who uses the medium he owns to viciously malign all and sundry, someone who fabricates “proof,” – all under the guise of freedom of expression.
Under the laws of Guyana, anyone who threatens a person with physical injury is guilty of threatening behaviour; anyone who threatens a person in such a manner that can cause, or is likely to cause a breach of the peace is also guilty of an offence; anyone who issues a threat to another person so as to cause that person reasonable fear or the apprehension of the infliction of a battery is guilty of an assault.
If that person is a president or a king then it becomes a treasonable offence – punishable by death.
Even touching someone without his or her consent is considered battery – an offence punishable by law.
The President interacts with the citizens of this country in close encounters – even to hugging and touching.
But for him to continue to do so without fear of imminent danger, which is ever-existent, given the support to lawless behaviour by irresponsible elements – and the encouragement this elicits in ignorant minds, there has to be the recognition within the public arena that there are consequences to threatening the person of the President, or encouraging others to do so, or else absolute anarchy will prevail – with all its inherent dangers.
From murdering a minister of the Government to assassinating a president is just a step away, and there is constant strategizing by evil forces to topple this Government, by fair means or foul.
Rwanda is one case in point that is a glaring example of what unchecked excesses in the media can provoke.
During the elections of l992, right here in Guyana, two radio announcers erroneously announced over the airwaves that ballot boxes were being stolen and as a result caused countrywide riots and a storming of the elections office.
They almost succeeded in their intent to derail the first free-and-fair elections after decades in this country.
Mr. C.N. Sharma can, with some degree of reason, argue that he curtailed the call and chastised the caller for threatening the person and the life of the President of Guyana.
But that same argument convicts him for re-broadcasting that threat – not once, which again could be termed a mistake to the credulous, but several times, for which offence only a fool or an opportunist with an agenda can absolve him.
I once lauded and supported Mr. C.N. Sharma, because when he established CNS 12 he had pioneered many laudable things and changed the equation in the electronic medium to include programmes more pertinent to the interests of Guyanese.
I also know of many good things Mr. Sharma and Mrs Savitri Singh have done in their personal capacities to assist people in need.
Rescuing the musicians from the Jeetendra tour and supporting them for weeks when their promoter abandoned them is a case in point.
However, since he decided to enter politics, Mr. Sharma has allowed himself to be used by anyone with a beef, disregarding the credibility factor, and has thus caused much anguish to many innocent persons.
Many times he has also exploited circumstances and situations that are subject to the gravitational pull of the psycho-socio and economic dynamics of any society and has exacerbated the situation until it assumed, or was catalysed through his histrionics, into catastrophic proportions.
Like many Guyanese, I once had great respect and liking for Mr. C.N. Sharma, but this has eroded over the years because his sincerity has become open to question, and one wonders if he genuinely cares about the people he purports to assist or if his once genuine caring has become subsumed by his political aspirations, which seem, evidentially, to be the equation within the motivational framework guiding his current actions.
He admits to knowing that threatening the life of anyone is an offence, and while he may argue that he was not responsible for the first call, he is absolutely culpable for the subsequent re-broadcasts; which makes him guilty of threatening the life of the President of the Republic of Guyana – which is a treasonable offence punishable by death. In another jurisdiction Mr. Sharma would have been instantly arrested and put on trial.
Instead he was courteously invited by the Office of the President to discuss the matter, which he rejected, with the sanction of the courts at that; so a matter that could have been amicably resolved snowballed into a public fracas.
This continuum of open breaches of the law was subsequently supported by opportunistic public figures who have appointed themselves the conscience of the nation and this begs the question: Is the President of Guyana not allowed the right of any ordinary citizen of this country to be protected by the laws of the land?
For all of those who argue that this sanction of Channel 6 is too harsh for a threat that could very well catalyze an attempt on the President’s life if allowed unchecked and unpunished, what would be your reaction if the President is actually harmed because a serious message has not been sent that the laws of the land are applicable to all and that threatening someone’s life – President or pauper, is an offence punishable by law?
One media operative who spoke against Sharma’s actions, although his cleverly constructed diatribes against the PPP/Civic Government is legend, has a personal axe to grind against Sharma, because even while he criticizes Sharma, he attacks other programmes that defend the Government and its functionaries against just such irresponsible accusations that are aired on CNS 6 and other television stations.
However, another ferocious critic of the Government, Opposition M.P. Anthony Vieira, should be commended for his objective position and for putting the entire charade in the right perspective, especially given the fact that Vieira has himself used excessive language and pontificated on erroneous assumptions against the Government in the past.
The fact is that Vieira has successfully and amicably interacted in joint initiatives with those he has often judged and misjudged toward the promotion of good governance through the parliamentary committees, and it redounds to his credit that he can be fair in his analysis when he is in possession of all the facts.
Kudos to him because he has proven that he is no yes-man.
The President acted as a statesman should. He rapped Sharma on the knuckles and absolved him from facing the full force of the law.
However, in considering that Mr. Sharma is using the President’s magnanimous ruling as an excuse to grandstand, as he is wont to do, along with his many cohorts in the opposition, which includes a hostile press body, the President should withdraw his ruling in the interest of peace in the nation, and for the sake of the CNS 6 employees, whose livelihoods have been jeopardized through no fault of their own, and let an objective court – possibly the Caribbean Court of Justice, deal with what is perceived as a seditious act, because in these prevailing times, even the lawmakers have become the lawbreakers - witness many in the legal fraternity - and parliamentarians, who make the laws in Guyana, but who are openly supportive of illegal actions and criminal elements in the society, as well as others who make open prejudicial rulings and who consequently cannot be trusted to be objective in the course of administering their professional responsibilities.
I am defending neither the President nor the Government. I hold brief for neither, but I am concerned about the downward spiral of my country into amoral and immoral – even subversive and unpatriotic behaviour, because the one irrefutable fact that is evident from this entire episode is that ours has become a very lawless society, and that the fallout from such lawlessness is corroding the soul of the nation.