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EDITORIAL - PBCJ in the debate for tolerance

Published:Wednesday | June 5, 2013 | 12:00 AM

This newspaper will withhold, until the court has ruled, broader comment on the free-speech case brought by a gay-rights activist against three Jamaican television stations which refused to broadcast, for pay, an ad promoting tolerance of homosexuals.

However, we believe that the case raises important matters of public policy that are worthy of discussion, to which Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her administration should pay serious attention.

In fact, the administration, and, more specifically, Mrs Simpson Miller, in her role as the information minister, must say plainly what is the Government's policy on the broadcast/publication of gay-tolerance messages by media outlets controlled by the State.

The specific legal issue that the court has been asked to decide on is whether the three stations impinged on Maurice Tomlinson's right to freedom of expression, or merely exercised their own, by their action. Further, the court was asked to rule that it was in the public interest and of value to society that the advertisement be aired.

These are fundamental legal and constitutional issues which underpin the premise of democracy, and to which the judges hearing the case will have to exercise their minds.

But the issue that we raise does not require the intervention of the judiciary. It is subject to ministerial fiat.

Two of the television stations sued by Mr Tomlinson, CVM TV and Television Jamaica, are privately owned. The third, the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ), is owned by the State and funded by taxpayers.

Among the things the PBCJ lists in its mandate are "the encouragement and propagation of positive values and attitudes within the society ... and the dissemination of news, information and ideas on matters of general public interest".

We assume that in interpreting this part of its mandate, the PBCJ would include controversial, and sometimes uncomfortable, issues that help to broaden understanding of individuals and the society.

We would hardly expect that - except in the most extreme of circumstances, such threats to the State, or if the matter to be broadcast is crude and vulgar and scandalous to public morals - the PBCJ would invoke its own right not to be imposed upon by other people's ideas.

GREATER PUBLIC GOOD

Indeed, we insist that the PBCJ, as a publicly funded institution, does not enjoy the same 'right' as privately owned media to reject, or to refuse to broadcast information with which it disagrees, or with which it is uncomfortable. And even if the PBCJ claimed it had a policy of not accepting paid advertisements, we believe the greater public good should trump such interests.

Furthermore, in the absence of a fuller explanation of its decision, we can only assume that the Government, agrees with the PBCJ's action remained party to the defence. That, on the face of it, is counter to the implied attitude of Prime Minister Simpson Miller towards gays in the society.

Indeed, during her campaign for the December 2011 general election, Mrs Simpson Miller was asked whether she would allow gays in her Cabinet. Unlike her opponent who waffled, Mrs Simpson Miller made it clear that his/her sexual preference would not be a question posed to prospective ministers. Further, she promised to allow a parliamentary conscience vote on the removal of the buggery law.

These were small movements in the direction of tolerance from which Mrs Simpson Miller should not be intimidated by noisy fundamentalist Christian pastors and fellow travellers.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.