Sun | May 16, 2021

Anti-vaxxer radio war

TBC’s Shuttleworth under fire but lawyer cites constitutional rights as defence

Published:Monday | April 19, 2021 | 12:18 AMBarbara Gayle/Contributor
The Rev Jeffrey Shuttleworth, pastor of Tarrant Baptist Church and general manager of TBC Radio.
The Rev Jeffrey Shuttleworth, pastor of Tarrant Baptist Church and general manager of TBC Radio.
Cordel Green, executive director of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.
Cordel Green, executive director of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.
A public health nurse prepares a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the inoculation of a senior citizen at The Golden Age Home in Kingston on March 23.
A public health nurse prepares a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the inoculation of a senior citizen at The Golden Age Home in Kingston on March 23.
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Religious station TBC Radio has been given an 11-day ultimatum by the Broadcasting Commission to turn over a controversial recording over allegations that it may have misused its licence in airing commentary that the state-issued COVID-19 vaccine...

Religious station TBC Radio has been given an 11-day ultimatum by the Broadcasting Commission to turn over a controversial recording over allegations that it may have misused its licence in airing commentary that the state-issued COVID-19 vaccine was ineffective and that persons should refrain from taking the inoculant.

But the lawyer for TBC Radio has rejected the broadcast watchdog’s intervention as “an attempt to muzzle our client’s attempt to express its constitutional right, which cannot be accepted in a free and democratic society”.

The comments by the fiery Rev Jeffrey Shuttleworth, who is both a featured preacher and general manager of the station, were made on April 9, the start of a five-day vaccination blitz that put the jab in the arms of more than 87,000 people.

Shuttleworth, a radical charismatic preacher whose Pentecostal flair diverges from the more conservative Baptist tradition, has infused his sermons with scepticism towards the immunisation programme that could find favour with the anti-vaxxer movement.

The case could become a fault line between privacy and religious rights lobbyists and advocates against misinformation against the backdrop of controversy over COVID-19 vaccination, which has stoked division over the pace of its development to market and international squabbles over side effects.

CONFLICT IN ROLES

The commission also said that Shuttleworth’s role as both pastor and general manager was untenable.

The station is operated by the Tarrant Baptist Church, which Shuttleworth pastors.

“On the face of it, such statements are clinical in nature, tending toward medical advice and are not necessarily religious,” executive director of the commission, Cordel Green, wrote on April 15 in a letter to Shuttleworth.

Green said the matter was being investigated and that Shuttleworth should furnish a copy of the unedited recording of the programme and any additional information to be considered by April 26.

The broadcast czar warned that the matter was being investigated as to whether the licence granted to TBC Radio has been misused for purposes contrary to those for which it was granted.

Green said further that “in the circumstances, apart from the submission of the material for our review, you are to rectify the conflict we have identified and advise the commission of the resolution. This is to be treated as an urgent matter”.

Shuttleworth, who hosted the programme, in his response dated April 16, said he strongly took issue with the assertion that his comments on the vaccine amounted to being medical in nature because nothing in his broadcast amounted to any such description. He said he had no difficulty providing the tape and was, therefore, submitting it.

“Our client is a religious entity, and the entire broadcast concerned matters of religion, and no attempt to offer any medical advice about the COVID-19 vaccine or otherwise was given,” attorney-at-law Hugh Wildman, who is representing Shuttleworth, said in the written response.

“In fact, our instructions are that Pastor Jeffrey Shuttleworth was clear that he was not a medical doctor and was at all times speaking religiously, and not medically, in commenting on the effectiveness or otherwise of the COVID-19 vaccine to his members.”

FREEDOM OF RELIGION

Wildman charged that he considered the queries to be “extraordinary” as Shuttleworth was entitled to the protection of the Constitution, which guaranteed not only freedom of expression, but also freedom of religious practice.

‘To accept your position would be tantamount to yielding to the insatiable appetite of an overbearing executive. We repudiate any such notion in this modern society,” read Wildman’s letter to the commission.

Wildman said he hoped that the commission would, in examining the tape, find that his client acted within the ambit of the law and the Constitution.

He was equally dismissive of “misplaced” concerns over Shuttleworth’s positions as general manager and preacher. The attorney cited the Constitution as his client’s defence.

“If this conflicts with any law that governs your commission, such law is pro tanto void,” said Wildman.

editorial@gleanerjm.com