“We live in a free country where people have as much right to express outrageous opinions as moderate ones” … Supreme Court of Canada
Today is Canada Day. We in Barbados celebrate this great occasion with pride because we are so closely allied to that wonderful country which has done so much for us. Many of us have friends there and we treasure the relationships we have with Canadians who visit and stay with us.
We also share a common history. Great Britain is one of our motherlands. We have peacefully worked with her to gain our independence in a way that has left us with a legacy of democracy, liberty, and freedom. We honour her for the guidance which has shaped our nation and given us a solid foundation to build our future.
We are reminded too that this legacy, hard earned over a thousand years of history, is a sacred trust which we must cultivate and treasure. If it is not watched over and cherished it can quickly evaporate in the hands of those who cannot see past their own self-interest. The great philosopher Spinoza, whose writings were influential to those who crafted this legacy, said: “The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain them by fear; rather it is to free each man from fear that he may live and act with full security and without injury to himself or his neighbour.”
We are reminded too that we must emulate the way Canada has furthered and protected its democratic principles. We fear Barbados is going another direction.
Here, recent governments have favored the self interest of a selected few and encouraged policies of hidden agendas and arbitrary decision making that have overridden laws and catered to rewarding the powerful with public monies out of all proportion to the good that they have done for our country and its people.
Now there is hope of a change of direction. A new government has been elected with a mandate to set our country back on its proper course. We are optimistic that we are now going to see a regime where decisions are made that will free each of us from fear, intimidation and backlash inflicted by those in power who would see their own self-interest promoted at the expense of the common good.
Recently our new government announced promising new initiatives that will see adoption of new legislation in the areas of conflict of interest, transparency, and defamation. Let us hope that they are truly committed to these principles that this is not just a way of avoiding the earnest promises made by Prime Minister Thompson in his zeal to convince us to elect him and his party. These matters are too important to be brushed aside lightly or treated only as commodities that deserve lip service. We are at a cross-roads where if new measures designed to foster democracy through integrity and openness are not implemented and enforced it is predicted that our country will fall into decay. We will have squandered the legacy passed on to us by Great Britain.
While watching Canada celebrate another birthday we should learn. Let us study the ways that it has preserved and enhanced its democratic principles since it achieved independence. Canada and its peoples have worked fought hard to enshrine and promote the hallmarks of democracy which are crucial to its future and we can benefit from its experience.
Canada has long since recognized the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as being the bulwarks of democracy. These are the foundation stones that guarantee that democracy will not wither but will prosper and flourish. Barbados needs to be very sure that it too does everything it can to be certain that the contemplated changes in laws broaden rather than restrict these principles.
Our country is woefully behind the times in this area and has suffered for it over the last 20 years. Our people are ill-informed about many public issues, ignored, chastised or rebuffed when they seek public information, and intimidated from speaking out by our oppressive defamation laws. This has to change and, if our leaders are to be believed, we are about to make this happen.
Supreme Court Of Canada Rules In Favour Of Radio Talk Shows
The Supreme Court of Canada last week issued another in a progression of decisions that reminds us how democratic principles need evolve into the 21st century. The decision, like many before it, emphasizes the fundamental need for Canadians to have access to all information they require to make up their own minds about public issues. This must include the freedom to publicly discuss, consider, and make personal decisions about issues regarding their own well being and that of our society.
The Canadian court ruled, in deciding a libel case against a radio commentator, that, while a person’s reputation is to be respected, this should not be so tightly regulated as to prevent “freewheeling debate on matters of public interest”.
The court pointed out that by now the Canadian population, like that of Barbados (where public education is encouraged and even financed right through to the university level) the populace is sufficiently well educated to differentiate ridiculous opinions from valid ones. We don’t need suppression of opinion since we are well able to separate what is worthy from what is silly.
“We live in a free country where people have as much right to express outrageous opinions as moderate ones” it said. It went further to state that, oddly enough, people sometimes view some of the more outrageous comments as entertainment rather than journalism and are very much able to tell the difference. There is an educational benefit in even the most irrational opinion if it makes people think and debate and draw their own conclusions.
The court laid down a modern test for defamation that is very relevant to the review that we here in Barbados are about to embark upon. One need only think of the ludicrous spectacle of former Tourism Minister Mr. Lynch last year bolting from a radio show because this elected public official was asked a question that was on everyone’s minds regarding his newfound wealth. We wanted to know, were entitled to know, whether his riches might be related directly to the exercise of powers he had been given by the electorate. Rather than see him account for himself, as he should have done, Barbados’ archaic defamation laws entitled him to be paid off because he said his personal reputation had been sullied by the ‘innuendo’ suggested by the question.
This type of nonsense has to be remedied. No longer can Barbados afford to maintain laws that allow public persons to avoid answering perfectly fair questions posed by their electors. No longer can we afford to allow our defamation laws to intimidate people from speaking out and questioning matters that concern us all. No longer can we allow our public officials to duck out from providing us with information about their efforts on our behalf and allow them to punish us financially if we question their legitimacy.
On this anniversary of Canada’s birthday we look hopefully forward to seeing our elected officials follow Canadian wisdom and open things up in a way that makes us better. The alternative is not healthy and will eventually see democracy in Barbados curtailed.
… Our thanks to BFP reader “Vee” for contributing this article