Tim, Tim, bois chaise: Free Speech Under Fire?

Timothy Poleon

Timothy Poleon

I still don’t get it. Really, I don’t. An item on the internet that by its title had signaled wild speculation, incidents and accidents, wink-wink hints, schoolyard allegations and unanswered questions up ahead has pushed the long moribund local media yet closer to oblivion.

It’s not so much the article itself that is to blame for the chilling effect on free expression here. Rather, it is the surprising and, to my mind, miscalculated reaction to the aforementioned apocryphal allegations that has created in Saint Lucia’s so-called “media workers” (with good reason, few actually refer to themselves as journalists!) a sudden preoccupation with previously unheeded charities, humorless humor, earlier ignored sports activities, interviews with every wannabe pageant queen, low-rent fêtes and just about any soft news—provided it is altogether disconnected from what we the people are entitled to know in our own best interests: the immediate future of our economy, the once much talked about misappropriation of Taiwanese funds, the escalating unemployment figures, the Hess fall-out, our 400 unresolved homicides and so on.

I repeat: the fall-out from the article on the internet seems to have affected only the local media—and, by extension, the citizenry it seeks to serve, regardless of party affiliation. The indisputable truth is that the piece at the center of this latest Lilliputian brouhaha remains accessible on the internet, without a single adjustment, and, to the best of my knowledge, without any demands that the publishers take it down or else!

Other news outlets outside Saint Lucia have also commented on the story and the local reaction, without a single threat of litigation. Indeed, the initial publishers have added new titillations to their original troublesome tale, without local reaction. It’s almost as if the declared offended parties might’ve taken no offense whatsoever, had a particular radio host not picked up and read the item on-air, as had at least one other station before him!

Since the now famous reading the nation has been informed by no less than the justice minister, via state-funded Radio St. Lucia, that although in the past he had been tolerant of unfair and undeserving press criticism, the “last few weeks and months” had convinced him of “a concerted effort to undermine me at personal capacity and in my professional capacity

. . . that cannot be allowed to continue.”

He had therefore instructed his attorneys to pursue legal action in relation “to these comments over the last few months and weeks” and they in turn had assured him of imminent action against Radio Caribbean’s Timothy Poleon, earlier declared by the nation’s prime minister himself “a media terrorist.”

Lest some of his fellow media workers were mindlessly contemplating schadenfreude parties, the justice minister gave them cause for pause. “This is just the first round,” he promised. “Others are going to be included and served.”

He had directed his attorneys to “pursue this matter as vigorously as is necessary to ensure an end is put to this.”

Remarkably, the justice minister did not disclose to RSL listeners the comments “over the last months and weeks” that had confirmed “a concerted effort to undermine” him. He evidently left that to his attorneys.

If I may be permitted a personal note: My immediate reaction to Poleon’s reading of the earlier cited internet item, headed “US Action Against St Lucia May be Connected to Visa Revocation,” was: What a load of codswallop!

When I had the opportunity, I phoned Newsspin to say as much to the lunchtime program’s host, adding that I thought the item, chockfull of speculation and unanswered questions though it was, had been so carefully lawyered as to be meaningless to readers unacquainted with the facts that had inspired it.

Let me elaborate. The article’s opening paragraph conjectures that “the recent action against Saint Lucia by the United States under the Leahy Law could be connected to the circumstances” that had led to the Richard Frederick visa revocations shortly before the last general elections.

By itself, the statement can hardly be considered defamatory, save perhaps of the United States government. After all, it had been made abundantly clear what was “the recent action” taken under the Leahy Law and what had inspired it, initially by me via a STAR feature, and later by the prime minister when he delivered his “An Unhappy Episode” address to the nation nearly two months ago, on August 20.

Of course, that did not stop the grinders of political axes from declaring both the prime minister and me liars, if only on the occasion. They stubbornly insisted without proof that “the recent action” had more to do with this nation’s recent hooking up with ALBA than with the human right’s violations the prime minister had underscored.

No one has been sued for expressing such views. In any event, citizens are free to speculate on facts relating to matters of public interest. The anonymous writer of the article at the center of this discourse had simply suggested the possibility, however farfetched, remote and absurd, that the revocation of Frederick’s visas could have something to do with the withdrawal of funds to the local police under the Leahy Law.

Paragraph two of the same article goes a little further to suggest unidentified individuals associated with a particular grouping, supported by “a propaganda campaign designed to tarnish Frederick’s reputation locally,” had persuaded the US authorities to revoke the MP’s visas.

Undeniably, there has been a continuing campaign dating back to the 2006 by-election, when the current justice minister was the sitting attorney general and also a contender for the Castries Central MP title. We need not go into the more demeaning details, save to say the prime minister had referred hyperbolically to the independent candidate (in private life a lawyer) as one who “gives comfort to drug traffickers by representing them in court!”

The evidence is easily accessible on YouTube (including the precedent-setting televised character assassinations during the run-up to the 2011 general elections).

As for the party’s by-election candidate in 2006, he had let it be known in not-so-subtle language that Frederick was under investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, on the basis of his suspected under-invoicing of two vehicles imported from Miami. The campaigning attorney general had neglected to mention that his office alone could’ve triggered such an investigation.

It may be useful to point out that to date the DEA has never interviewed Frederick, neither has he been required to answer drug-related charges before a court of law. Keep in mind our Constitution that guarantees lawbreakers the right to be treated as innocent until convicted by a properly constituted tribunal.

In the circumstances, would it be altogether unreasonable and defamatory to suggest the nation’s lawmakers had falsely, consistently, and publicly accused Richard Frederick of criminal behavior?

But let me not digress too far. The article that has landed Timothy Poleon in legal hot water also drew attention to the fact that during the 2011 campaign the leader of the Labour Party had pledged, if elected, to make public the reasons for the  revocation of Frederick’s US visas but to date had failed to do so.

Indeed, regardless of what the now prime minister had said on the visa matter while on the campaign trail, he has since acknowledged the reluctance on the part of US authorities to divulge such information. Ironically, when in his own time as prime minister Stephenson King had made a similar admission, the opposition party had effectively labeled him “de lyin’ King.”

Paragraph six of the allegedly offending article is mere repetition of the first, second and third. The main point of paragraph seven is a complaint about the US government’s unfair treatment of Frederick, based on supposedly false reports, while other government officials were permitted uninterrupted travel to the United States despite their known history.

Whether or not the State Department has been even-handed in the particular matter is open to argument. But I’ve been wondering who might be the cited government officials with a certain known history that should’ve stood in their way of free travel to the U.S. As for their particular history, known by whom?

I might also proffer, for the benefit of readers recently arrived from Mars, the ordinary meaning of the words “government officials”: “People elected or appointed to administer a government.” Seems to me we’re referring here to thousands, if we count the over-bloated public service; ministry personnel; city councilors; mayors; in-house consultants; MPs and their several assistants and bodyguards.

So if the beleaguered broadcaster should claim he had no idea, when he read what he read on Newsspin, who might be the two government officials referred to, will the burden then be on his accusers to prove otherwise?

Especially interesting to me are the “so far unconfirmed reports that State Department and US embassy officials” had been demoted in connection with the visa revocations. Also the continuing existence of a back-channel line of communication between the Bridgetown embassy and “elements in St Lucia sympathetic to the SLP.” Again we’re talking about more thousands of people here, folks.

The next paragraph actually identifies senior local government officials who, “on or about” a stated date, “were reportedly asked to attend a particular meeting at the embassy.”

Trouble you say? Well, let’s not ignore the warning at the start of the paragraph preceding that immediately above, in particular, the words “unconfirmed reports.” As for the named government officials, note that they were “reportedly asked to attend” a meeting, not that they actually attended. In any case, is any of this true? Did four senior government officials receive embassy invitations as indicated? Who the hell knows? But I think I know why the writer named the officials anyway. Consider the following:

“The prime minister’s secretary has not responded to a request for confirmation and comment about the meeting in Barbados in July last year or the outcome thereof and, although acknowledging our inquiries, neither the State Department nor the US Embassy in Bridgetown has so far provided substantive comment.”

Talk about CYA! See what I meant when I suggested to Poleon that the article in question had been well lawyered? That “thereof” in the above-quoted paragraph is a dead giveaway. Moreover, exactly as required by law, the writer had sought clarification on a matter of public interest from the prime minister’s press secretary, a government official with a duty to set the record straight on government matters. But according to the anonymous internet writer, the press secretary had not even bothered to acknowledge his or her request—unlike the State Department and the US Embassy, although they had not provided “substantive comment.”

(The prime minister’s press secretary has since publication of the article over the internet and on RCI revealed her reasons for ignoring the request for “confirmation and comment about the meeting concerning the matter at the Bridgetown embassy.” But that’s for another show!)

So, what was a poor writer with millions of expectant readers worldwide to do? The author of the declared offensive piece decided to put his or her questions and speculations out there on the internet for the benefit of all, including Timothy Poleon who, for several years, had made a habit of sharing with his Newsspin audience matters he considers of special interest to the Saint Lucian public. (If only he did the same with articles by a certain local writer who will remain nameless!)

Will he now pay the price for reading on-air without comment what conceivably had been read by multi-million internet fans interested in Caribbean and world affairs? What is undeniably a matter of public interest, if only on the basis of “the action taken against Saint Lucia” under the Leahy Law—and which involves national security? After all, as crazy as I think it is, the apparently offending article does suggest “the action taken against Saint Lucia” could somehow be connected with false information received by the US embassy and the consequent revocation of Richard Frederick’s visa!

An interesting titillation, taken from the article under discussion: “The US government is believed to have launched an investigation into the events and circumstances leading up to the revocation of Frederick’s visa. In particular, one or more Saint Lucian women are reported to have traded sexual favors to procure the cooperation of US embassy officials in Bridgetown.”

What! Has Dr. King read this? Has the now quiescent CAFRA president? Where are the local women’s organizations? Why have they taken no action in defense of the good name of Saint Lucian women accused of passing it to horny US embassy officials at Richard Frederick’s expense? Why have no related defamation suits been filed, neither by the accused women nor by the allegedly pleasured officials?

And now for the biggest question: Will Timothy Poleon apologize? I am informed he already has to the justice minister, although not to his satisfaction. Reportedly, the minister wants Tim to grovel closer to the dirt and will compose his own apology, which the broadcaster will then be expected to endorse with his signature.

I, for one, can hardly wait to read and reproduce it in this newspaper—unless, of course, there is some attendant injunction that would deny the reading public the right to such information!

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