No neat or perfect solutions [please note: Stabroek News did not entitle its editorial today; the title is provided by LOSP web site]

Stabroek News
December 27, 2000

"And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing".

Do I have the right to cry fire in a crowded cinema when there is none, leading to ten people being trampled to death in the ensuing melee? No fundamental human right is absolute. My right to freedom of movement does not entitle me to enter your home without your permission. I do not have the right to call for the overthrow of a government as that is sedition.

The debate, therefore, among reasonable men is where the line should be drawn as to what expression or statements are acceptable. We can start from the assumption that freedom of expression is one of the fundamental building blocks of an open, democratic society. The right to air your views, to criticise, to offer solutions is vital. As much freedom as possible should therefore be allowed.

But there are instances in which the unbridled use of the right of free speech can damage other vital rights. Democracies depend on the rule of law. If laws are broken with impunity by governments or other parties or bodies the underpinnings of democratic society are weakened. Laws are upheld by judges. Their decisions can be forthrightly and even trenchantly criticised. But to go beyond that, to attack a judge personally as corrupt or biased is contemptuous of the court and creates disrespect for the law. The weakening of the authority of the courts by such attacks can be a grave disservice to democracy as if there is little respect for the judges there will eventually be little respect for the law.

Mr Mark Benschop, a talk show host, recently launched a series of attacks on his TV programme on Justice Carl Singh as being politically biased. We believe Mr Benschop overstepped the mark. There is no doubt that in other democracies in the Caribbean and further afield he would have been called to account for his statements. Nothing has happened here. Neither the Attorney General nor the Bar Association has even seen fit to comment publicly on the matter and to perhaps offer advice or a warning. That is passing strange. On sober reflection or with the benefit of advice from media and other colleagues Mr Benschop might himself wish to consider the damage that can be caused by his remarks and to offer an apology.

Mr Benschop has also attracted attention with the audacity and outspoken quality of his programmes. He has his critics and his admirers. His critics say he is more about Rwanda than free speech, that he is a purveyor of hate, that he makes no attempt to examine issues fairly and objectively, that he caters to sensationalism. His admirers say he is fearless and ventilates issues other media do not touch.

Mr Benschop poses acutely the question of where the line should be drawn as to what is permissible free speech. Of course the law itself sets certain limits. To publish or broadcast seditious statements is a crime. Contempt of court has its own sanctions. Racist statements may be punishable under new legislation. To publish or broadcast statements that are defamatory exposes the publisher or broadcaster to legal action for libel. The fact that the statement was not made by the publisher or station owner but by a columnist or a talk show host, or by a letter writer or telephone caller is quite irrelevant. Once the statement appears in the newspaper or is broadcast on the station, the owner of the newspaper or the station is liable. Many owners of TV stations do not seem to be aware of this and allow talk show hosts who rent time from them or callers into programmes complete licence. They are, of course, fully liable for anything the host or the caller may say, despite any disclaimer they may issue.

But legal constraints aside, the broad issue remains. In the final analysis we believe that in the interest of free speech some abuses must be tolerated. The alternative would be censorship which would be quite intolerable. No church or other body should have the right to have a talk show host removed. No advertiser should have the right to have a commentator withdrawn. In the free exchange of opinions many issues vital to a democracy have to be carefully weighed.

At the end of the day there are no neat or perfect solutions. But these issues should be discussed publicly. The legitimate limits of free speech should be discussed and explored. To some extent we have sought to do this in our letter columns. The media can make a vital contribution to the debate by recognising that their undertaking as media owners and practitioners is a professional one involving serious responsibilities, that a microphone carelessly used can be as dangerous as a machine gun, that this precious right of freedom of expression is to some extent in their safekeeping. If they neither understand nor respect this, if they make no attempt to discipline themselves and those who use their stations and to respect the requirements of their profession to be fair, objective and responsible they can cause untold damage and can bring the practice of journalism itself into contempt and ridicule.

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