Orville Taylor | No Apocrypha on free speech
“Cock mouth kill cock” and the policeman succumbs to peer pressure and makes a mockery of the hard work of his colleagues. This is Jamaica and one of the few places where one is free to call a radio talk show and strip the government, without armed...
“Cock mouth kill cock” and the policeman succumbs to peer pressure and makes a mockery of the hard work of his colleagues. This is Jamaica and one of the few places where one is free to call a radio talk show and strip the government, without armed uniformed men invading the studio. On this rock, political tribalists rake the leader of opposition and detractors come from even within their party.
According to Freedom House and Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without borders), Jamaica has consistently, over the past decade or so, ranked in the top 10, regarding freedom of the press. That’s a big deal, even without the fries. Currently placed seventh, we are the number one English-speaking ... or rather English-understanding country, since most of us, including those with fake accents, barely speak English. We are a bilingual country, where the majority of us speak ‘Patwa’ or Jamaican, while a tiny minority is competent in Caribbean English.
We are one of the best democracies on earth, with freedom of expression and myriad fundamental rights and freedoms. Despite the cracks in our judicial system, there is deep consensus among all stakeholders that justice is achievable via the courts. Indeed, the young man who was made into a poppy show by the police sergeant in the current viral video may eventually find himself with such a payout, that he might get a hernia from carrying it.
Our freedom of conscience and choice have caused us to have seamless elections for more than 77 years and the loser, despite bellyaching and ‘bad mind’, accepts the loss and victory as legitimate. We have never attempted to assassinate our elected leader or assemble large mobs in endeavours to invade our Parliament, Jamaica or King’s House. Indeed, were it not for the Barbary, pea and ground doves, we would not have ‘coo’ in our vocabulary.
BEDROCK OF DEMOCRACY
Dissent is a bedrock of democracy and history is full of examples of the negative political outcomes when Jamaican governments appear to be abridging this right. Enshrined in our Constitution is freedom of expression. Even before the bipartisan committee took a decade to arrive at the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in 2011, freedom of expression and conscience were in the 1962 version, which the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party, Alexander Bustamante, and his cousin, People’s National Party president Norman Manley, both agreed on.
It is inviolable and everyone who has succeeded them knows, including our current Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The last time I addressed an audience with him present, he assured me and the gathering that he was mindful of my historical observations that two things done by incumbent government invariably guaranteed a loss in the next election. These were: a distinct anti-worker ethos and government’s directly trying to silence opposition. So anyone who appears to be doing just that, to impress him, is not doing him any favours.
Our rights are not Apocrypha; breaching them is like pushing forks through crockery.
In fact, as long as one is not issuing a threat or inducing others to carry out harmful acts, she is free to wag her tongue and Officer Dibble can do nothing.
So, for example, as evil as it might be, one is free to say, he wishes another person would crash and die or be killed by COVID-19. It is no different than when one ‘pray God’ for one’s enemies as the biblical David did.
In the course of my journalistic journey, some nasty emails have been received. One fellow so upset over my criticism of the House of Babylon, said something about me looking into a loaded nine one night. He never threatened me though. Rather, he was saying that he hoped it happened, so that I might have a different perspective.
My response was twofold. I told him that I appreciated his frankness and defended his right to criticise or denigrate me. However, he would have had little support in his views from the constabulary. Second, both my cowardice tree and hypocrisy plant had been uprooted from my garden. Therefore, the only fear I had was spelt ‘fair’ and maybe fare.
Still, with every freedom comes responsibility, because in the exercise of our freedoms, we can trample on the rights of others and cause harm, which may have civil consequences. So, while I might have the right to shoot off my mouth, if I defame another person, it is actionable. Freedom of movement doesn’t allow me to enter another’s yard.
If my free speech disturbs the peace or interferes with a police operation it is arrestable. If I scream at a police officer, it is not a crime; but if my words cause disaffection, it is an offence under Section 69 of the Constabulary Force Act.
Still, anyone ever wondered why the language of the poor majority was criminalised by our colonial masters? Why it is not an offence to describe a person as a used sanitary napkin, soiled tissue paper or a large mammal’s vulva; but the Patwa equivalents are ‘curse words’ even when used as salutations?
Nonetheless, I will hold my tongue.
- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.