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EDITORIAL - Threat to the press, democracy in Cayman

Published:Monday | December 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The decision by the attorney general of the Cayman Islands, Sam Bulgin, against prosecuting the Cayman Compass newspaper and its journalist, Brent Fuller, is welcome and sensible.

Mr Bulgin's decision, however, does not resolve the more fundamental question that has arisen in recent weeks about the commitment of the Cayman Islands legislative assembly, and by extension the territory's government, to freedom of the press, transparency in governance and, ultimately, democracy.

In that regard, it is important that the Caymanian authorities reaffirm their commitment to democratic principles and declare that what happened in the assembly earlier this month, led by Speaker Mary Lawrence, was an aberration from which she and misguided legislators have retreated and for which they are ready to apologise.

The dispute stems, paradoxically, from how the Cayman Islands assembly is going about the review of the territory's freedom of information law. A subcommittee of the legislature undertaking the job planned to meet in private.

WikiLeaks revelation

In an article published earlier this month, the Compass' Mr Fuller wrote about the process in unflattering terms. In a separate editorial, the paper expressed its fears that the assembly might attempt to use the current controversy over the WikiLeaks revelation of secret US diplomatic transmissions to weaken the Caymanian law.

On December 9, Speaker Lawrence suspended Mr Fuller from the assembly for two days and called for him to apologise.

The ability of Mr Fuller, and press in general, to report on the Caymanian legislature, the speaker claimed, fantastically, was a "privilege not a right". Further, she argued, Mr Fuller's piece, and the Compass' leader, had impugned the integrity of members of the legislature.

Ms Lawrence ought to have been immediately abandoned on this quixotic folly by other members of the legislature. Instead, Mr Ezzard Miller, via a private member's motion, proposed not the suspension, but the immediate cancellation of Mr Fuller's press privileges and demanded that the reporter and his newspaper be criminally prosecuted under the legislative assembly law.

Happily, Attorney General Bulgin did not acquiesce. That, however, ought not to be the end of the matter.

Transparent democracy

Premier McKeeva Bush should publicly repudiate the action of the legislators and make it clear that his administration is in favour of transparent democracy. Moreover, the legislature should apologise to Mr Fuller and the Cayman Compass and commit to public hearings on the freedom of information review. Indeed, all the assembly's committees should be open to the public.

Additionally, the Cayman Islands should follow other jurisdictions that have repealed legislation that allow criminal libel and the right of the state to prosecute people for supposedly impugning the integrity of pompous officials.

We remind the Cayman assembly that a key tenet of democracy is the right of people to know what decisions are being made in their names by those they elect to govern, and the process by which these decisions are arrived at.

This requires, among other things, the openness of institutions such as parliament and the right of the people and their proxy, the press, to have full access to such institutions and the right to question, sometimes harshly, the actions of their representatives.

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