A fundamental misconception

Stabroek News
February 9, 2000

The leader of the United National Congress, Mr Basdeo Panday, who is also of course the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago while addressing a private meeting of party supporters last week Thursday in Trinidad is reported by the Trinidad Guardian to have linked President A.N.R. Robinson, Chief Justice Michael de La Bastide, the National Alliance for Reconstruction and the Caribbean Communications Network (CCN), whose chairman is Mr Ken Gordon, to concerted attacks designed to defeat his government in general elections this year. Mr Panday reportedly drew up a list of enemies that included economist Lloyd Best and political scientist Selwyn Ryan.

The Prime Minister said the Express newspaper and TV6, both part of the CCN group, were daily engaged in a "vicious and concerted attack against the government and the people" and that Mr Robinson and Chief Justice de La Bastide had joined them.

Mr Panday's remarks are based on the fundamental misconception that critics of a government, even fairly consistent critics, are necessarily its enemies. It is a misconception that can go to the root of the assumptions on which an open, democratic society is based. For it is the fundamental right of citizens in a democracy to express their opinions freely and openly, even when these opinions are critical of the government of the day. The media, in the pursuit of their business of publishing newspapers and running radio and television stations, regularly exercise this right in their editorial columns. The President and the Chief Justice also have the right to express their opinions subject to such constitutional restraints and conventions as may exist and so, of course, do opposition parties, professionals and columnists.

To refer to those who exercise this right as enemies is to show disregard for an important constitutional principle. The language is too strong, it is inappropriate, it is undemocratic. It is true that Mr Panday was speaking as party leader to a gathering of the faithful and may therefore have permitted himself indulgences he would not otherwise have done. But it was said to be a packed auditorium and he can never forget that he will also be seen to be wearing his prime ministerial hat when speaking in a public place on important matters of state. The language used - a "virtual war" having been declared against his government and calling on his supporters to defend themselves - is intemperate in any forum and can easily promote attitudes that are incompatible with a peaceful and democratic society.

Newspapers are, of course, used to being unpopular with governments. It goes with the turf and is not something that can or should be avoided. You do your job to the best of your ability and this will from time to time incur the wrath of governments, and other vested interests in the society including opposition parties, business groups and trade unions. Newspaper proprietors and editors seek popularity at the peril of their journalistic soul. They must be forever vigilant, forever somewhat distant (there can be no entente cordiale with any government) and always ready to go wherever the logic of a story or the events of the day take them, whoever is involved. There must be no sacred cows. But there are rules of the game. And it is surely a breach of these rules for a government to call on its supporters to stop buying and reading a newspaper and to suggest that the next step may be to boycott businesses that advertise with the newspaper, as Mr Panday is reported to have done. That strikes at the root of press freedom and is again an implicit attack on an important constitutional principle.

Governments in democracies have to learn to live with criticism. It will sometimes be biased and irresponsible and they are perfectly entitled to say so when that is the case and to make their case against the media, trenchantly. But to go beyond this, to call for boycotts and financial sanctions is to put in jeopardy the principles on which an open society is based.