Editorial: Resolve JFJ status
The recent troubles of Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) notwithstanding, there is little doubt that, on balance, the organisation has been good for Jamaica. Over the past decade and a half, even if sometimes with excessive stridency, it opened new frontiers in human-rights advocacy.
That is why we are concerned at the revelation by the JFJ's chairman, Barry Wade, that the group is having trouble maintaining its tax-exempt status as a charity and is, therefore, having to cut back on the depth and breadth of its advocacy, which some people, not unreasonably, might interpret as vindictive action by the Government. We, at this point, have no position on any such perception, but do not believe that this is a situation without an easy and amicable solution, which must be found urgently.
In a country that prides itself on the strength of its democracy and with an administration that likes to declare its commitment to human rights, the greater onus is on the Government.
The problems facing JFJ apparently arise from the passage a year and a half ago of a new law governing charities which forced the organisation to recertify its status. But according to Dr Wade, last October, its application was refused because among its objectives was legislative change, "which, in the Government's opinion, was a political objective and, therefore, disqualified us as a charitable group". The authorities, he indicated, have maintained that position.
We would wish further and better particulars from the Government for a decision that, on the face of it, is surprising.
A wide interpretation of the provisions of the Charities Act could possibly encompass an organisation that promotes legislative change among those to be excluded from receiving charity, and, therefore, tax-exempt status. But there are, in our view, at least two other important factors, under the law, to be considered.
Point 10 of its first schedule lists among the organisations entitled for charity cover those involved in the "advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation". Such endeavours fall precisely within JFJ's areas of advocacy.
Further, and critically, Section 3 (2) of the Charity Act states: "If the purposes of an organisation that is, or seeks to be, registered as a charitable organisation include a purpose that is not a charitable purpose of the organisation, the presence of the non-charitable purpose does not, without more, prevent the organisation from being regarded as, or qualifying to be, so registered."
In the circumstance, the question is what is the "more" that the Jamaican authorities have adduced to make JFJ ineligible for registration, thus making it liable for a slew of taxes
and has saddled the group with a tax debt of J$11 million, causing it to return international grant funds and reducing its services to people.
It is to be recalled that it is poor Jamaicans who are the primary beneficiaries of JFJ. This is a constituency to which the governing People's National Party and, in particular, its president and the country's prime minister, like to lay claim. In recent times, some misjudgements and silly internal fights have weakened the JFJ.
But at its best, it helped Jamaicans appreciate their right to good governance, respect for their person, liberty and dignity, often to the discomfiture of Government. There should be no price extracted for this.