Why blame journalists?

Members of the St Lucia Media Association: How determined are they to protect the constitutional right to free speech in St. Lucia?

Members of the St Lucia Media Association: How determined are they to protect the constitutional right to free speech in St. Lucia?

I have no idea what drove the justice minister to react as he did to the now most discussed article on Caribbean life.  Almost anyone could have concluded, just from reading what had appeared in Caribbean News Now a couple weeks ago, that what was required in the circumstances were reassuring responses—not some lawyer’s clever device by which to scare and stifle the local press.

After all, no other story in recent times, not even about how Jack Grynberg became the effective owner of some 83 million acres of prime Saint Lucian property, had attracted as much public attention. And that was before Timothy Poleon got wind of it.

Besides, the story had had its genesis in 2006, with the then campaigning attorney general’s platform revelations, to say nothing of the not-so-subtle serious allegations unloaded on the public by the AG’s party colleagues and other endorsers of his candidacy.

As for the allegations: by all that flowed from the monster loudspeakers mounted on the attorney general’s public platforms, his opponent for the Castries Central seat was “the most frightening development in the politics of Saint Lucia,” so strongly suspected of having under-invoiced vehicles imported from Miami that the AG’s office had been left no other choice but to trigger a DEA investigation that included possible money laundering—even murder.

How subtly the word was delivered depended on how clever the speakers. But always it had seemed the common goal was to convince the electorate that whether or not Saint Lucia went to the dogs, whether virginal Helen was to be repeatedly raped by drug barons and other social vermin, depended solely on the vote count following the 2006 Castries Central by-election.

Consider this from a platform orator on the steps of the Castries market. The date was Sunday, March 13, 2006. Already the crowd had been rendered hot and mindless by Jamaican dancehall seductress Tanya Stephens:

“Why won’t the UWP tell the people what they know about Richard Frederick? God forbid a man who makes his living defending and protecting drug barons in the courts of this country should be elected to parliament!”

It gets even more desperate: “If things are as bad as he says, then let him explain his $45 million fortune. Mr. Frederick must explain to the people of Saint Lucia how he came to be worth millions and millions of dollars. Is he coming into politics so he can acquire a diplomatic passport? Well, I say no diplomatic passport for you, Mr. Frederick. Tonight the Saint Lucia Labour Party stands defiant against those who would give comfort to drug barons and drug traffickers!”

Perchance you hadn’t already guessed, the quoted words formed just a small part of the fusillade of bombs that on the remembered Sunday afternoon the day’s prime minister and party leader rained on the head of his candidate’s opposition in the 2006 Castries Central by-election.

Remarkably, the then independent candidate and lawyer Richard Frederick did not take to the courts. Although he was not a public-office holder at the time of the by-election, conceivably he was familiar with the 1990 Privy Council decision in Hector versus the Attorney General of Antigua and Others, from which the following is taken:

“In a free democratic society it is almost too obvious to need stating that those who hold office in government, and who are responsible for public administration, must always be open to criticism. Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to political censorship of the most insidious and objectionable kind.

“At the same time, it is no less obvious that the very purpose of criticism leveled at those who have the conduct of public affairs by their political opponents is to undermine public confidence in their stewardship and to persuade the electorate that they would make a better job of it than those presently holding office.

“In the light of these considerations their Lordships cannot help viewing a statutory provision which criminalizes statements likely to undermine public confidence in the conduct of public affairs with the utmost suspicion . . .”

In all events the campaigning Frederick sought instead to clear with explanations and direct answers the mephitic atmosphere that was the fall-out from his opponent’s stink-bomb raids on his reputation—evidently at electorate’s displeasure. When all the ballots had been counted, it emerged that the best the sitting attorney general could accomplish, never mind his hardly limited arsenal, was 1260 to his opponent’s 1508 votes.

Of course the demonstrated public confidence in Frederick at the incumbent party’s expense had not deterred the more ambitious among them, including the failed but undaunted candidate soon to be jettisoned in favor of a recently made-over Vaughan Lewis, whose own political history forms one of the nastier accounts in At the Rainbow’s Edge!

Indeed, the attacks on the new Castries Central MP continued even after the 2006 general elections that had placed the John Compton-led UWP in office.

It was widely bruited about by SLP activists that “the worst thing to happen to Saint Lucian politics” and who had suffered the indignity of being the first Caribbean minister of government to be picked up by the police in broad daylight, on one of the city’s busiest streets, with news cameras feverishly recording the event, would quite likely be extradited to the United States to face a variety of charges, all felonious, before the 2011 general elections.

If that prediction still has not materialized, certainly the same cannot be said about the prophecy that his two US visas would be revoked, one of which had been issued him with regular renewals from 1982.

Not surprising, there was jubilation throughout the Red Zone. Orchestrated demands were made on the day’s prime minister to show respect for law and order by booting Frederick out of his Cabinet, if not out of the UWP. Let it also be said: the demands were echoed at UWP headquarters by some who were self-convinced their party’s election chances would be zero if Frederick was not removed from their slate of candidates.

When SLP activists dominated the airwaves with their fiery demands for an explanation for the visa revocations, the beleaguered prime minister replied that his queries had gone largely ignored by the US Embassy. His opposition critics quickly labeled him “the Lyin’ King.” Yes, cute.

We need not go into the rest of the unforgettable relatively recent saga. Suffice it to say Frederick was forced to resign from the prime minister’s Cabinet, which left him standing alone. Cannon fodder for the SLP’s big guns. Some went so far as to suggest the MP had run afoul of the US Embassy for reasons connected with alleged human rights violations by cops under his control.

Why didn’t Frederick sue? He alone knows, for certain. On the other hand, the current justice minister has informed the nation he will take legal action following RCI’s Timothy Poleon’s reading of an article originally published online. Much of the content centers of the revocation of Frederick’s personal and diplomatic US visas, as I say, a subject widely kicked around during the 2011 election campaign.

In a statement last week, at which time he announced his intention to sue, the justice minister said he believes “good government requires public figures answer to the public and to the media.”

Wrong! Regular public figures have nothing to do with governance. But public servants do. And while the justice minister probably considers himself a public figure, it is as a public servant that he is accountable to the people of this nation, at all times, whether or not convenient to him.

He went on: “Over the last few weeks and months” it had become clear to him that there is “a concerted effort to undermine me at personal capacity and in my professional capacity.”

Again the justice minister seems confused. He speaks as if there were something wrong and illegal in the public determination to hold him accountable, a public duty that he considers an “effort to undermine” him personally and professionally.

Is he here referring to his profession as a lawyer? Surely he does not consider his current senatorial position a profession. Maybe he sees himself as a wannabe professional politician yet to score. In all events, where is the law that prohibits public attempts at undermining him in these capacities?

Is our justice minister altogether unaware of the earlier cited words of Lord Bridge of Harwich with reference to statements “likely to undermine public confidence in the conduct of public affairs?”

The justice minister did not say how he had been undermined in his personal capacity. So I will let that be until he does. I want instead to remind the justice minister that the public pays his salary, as well as for his travels and the entertainment of his official guests.

I should add that in his office Mr. La Corbiniere is responsible for peace and order in our nation. Also the DPP’s office and all that entails, the police, crime detection, the registry, Bordelais, crime resolution and so on.

When he agreed to shoulder the responsibilities of justice minister, he also undertook to do something salutary about the over 400 unresolved homicides that have left scores of taxpayers praying for years for some resolution that in their hearts they know will never come.

But let us move on to the justice minister’s other delusion, that Timothy Poleon should not have read out a particular story because he had not verified its content. Again I refer to the Tim Hector Privy Council decision: “Their Lordships observe, however that it would on any view be a grave impediment to the freedom of the press if those who print or a fortiori those who distribute, matter reflecting critically on the conduct of public authorities could only do so with impunity if they could first verify the accuracy of all statements of fact on which the criticism is based.”

Last Friday the justice minister threatened during a TV interview that while his lawyers had demanded a retraction from Timothy Poleon, no one should imagine the matter would stop at that. Well, what I want to know is how do you retract something you never wrote, revelations that are not yours and so on. In short, how do you retract what you only read over the airwaves? Perhaps what the justice minister wished to say was that his lawyers had demanded Poleon say how sorry he is that he had read a story published online that could have major impact on the image of Saint Lucia and all who live here.

I suspect it promises to get worse!

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