Free speech in a multi-ethnic society
August 7, 2003
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Dr Prem Misir has launched a harsh attack on the Stabroek News in one of his regular columns in the Chronicle. He says that the Stabroek News “allegedly seems” (a curious phrase) “to be playing one ethnic group against the other, in the same way the imperialists divided these two ethnic groups. Stabroek News does this very well by allowing space to anxious opportunists and ethnic extremists, in order to lay the groundwork for ethnic and political instability.” Since it started publication in 1986, Stabroek News has encouraged in its letter columns a wide-ranging debate on a variety of topics including the need for a return to fair elections (which occurred in 1992), problems of governance, ethnic division, the rule of law and other issues. Writing more than ten years ago, Mr Ravi Dev (Dr Misir’s current bete noire) put forward arguments for federalism and for consociational democracy (power-sharing). Obviously, in the course of this debate, sensitive issues were involved. All letters were of course edited, but in an effort to encourage open dialogue, the editing was liberal. The hope was that a free exchange of views would lead to a better understanding of the situation, or at least defuse some of the insecurities and tensions.
There was no ethnic scorecard, as Dr Misir suggests, leading to a mechanistic balancing of opposing views. People with something to say were allowed to say it and there was a variety of conflicting views. Offence was no doubt given by some of the views expressed. We also profoundly disagreed with some of them. But especially in view of the virtual censorship that had existed prior to 1986 due to monopoly state control of the media, there was a good reason for letting people have their say. Indeed, when Stabroek News first started it was quite difficult to get persons to express their opinions publicly. They had been conditioned by the previous era to be wary of speaking out because of the possible consequences and it took a long time to re-establish some sort of vibrant public opinion.
In 1986 the problems of modern Guyana were well known. Ethnic voting patterns had been established since the 1957 elections. Foreign intervention in the ‘60s had helped to destroy democracy. The PNC had held power since 1968 by rigged elections. The experiment with socialism and nationalisation had failed disastrously and the economy was in a terrible state. The brain drain was in full flow.
The rebirth of free media and the beginning of privatisation, a period of glasnost and perestroika, instituted in the late ‘80s by President Hoyte, changed the equation somewhat and led to fair elections in 1992 and a change of government.
It is fair to say that the two main issues since 1992 have been the rebuilding of the shattered economy and the ongoing problem of ethnic division expressed in the form of the two main parties, particularly at election time. These issues have been the subject of a continuing debate. Dr Misir’s main concern, as is evident from other columns he has written, is with the Indian extremists, as he sees them, who attack the PPP for failing, in their view, to protect Indians (their constituency) when under siege. It is also worth noting that Dr Misir has expressed no concern about the scurrilous letters published by the state-owned newspaper under his direct control, containing the most rabid attacks on political opponents.
In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to believe that one can usefully debate difficult and sensitive issues in the letter columns of a newspaper. But where does one draw the line? In a society in which ethnic division is a major issue, does one exercise rigid censorship and allow no debate on that topic? Surely that is neither sensible, pragmatic nor even democratic. Ethnic division exists, the letter columns don’t create it. Do they exacerbate it, or is it healthier to let views be expressed?
We have rejected a large number of letters which we believed were racist or made no contribution to the debate. We always corrected obvious errors, but it is naive to think that opinions are always susceptible to clear rejection. Free speech on all topics is often ill-informed and misleading. Men of some intelligence and education frequently make basic errors of fact and analysis in their pronouncements, often in complete good faith. Debates are almost always untidy and inconclusive; in other words all public debate is flawed. To limit it to disinterested scholars is neither realistic nor desirable. On the other hand, everyone agrees that there have to be limits.
Freedom of expression is a constitutional right. There are exceptions (libel, sedition, and, we would also argue, hate speech). But as John Milton argued centuries ago, one should not think so meanly of the intelligence and good sense of the people and their ability to sift the wheat from the chaff as to lightly practise the art of censorship. In addition, banned views will often reassert themselves in other less public fora and in a more virulent form.
Perhaps as a reaction to the former condition of media control, and also due to an almost doctrinaire belief in the value of free speech, our approach to our letter columns has been too liberal. Yet it has given thousands of people, including overseas Guyanese, a chance to express their views, and all the major debates on power sharing, constitutional reform, economic development and other important issues have been conducted in these letter columns.
A free debate cannot be fully sanitised with a godlike censor removing all the warts and rough edges. There is a downside to free speech, as there is to all freedoms.
The crucial question, as always, is where to draw the line. In a society governed by the rule of law, broad rules will have to be settled defining the parameters within which free debate can be conducted.
The allegation by Dr Misir of malice and bad faith, even with that peculiar qualification (“allegedly seems”) is regrettable.