As we get ready to celebrate the nation’s 43rd anniversary of its attainment of republican status, one of the thorny issues with which we are grappling was first evoked by the recent arrest of Trade Unionist Watson Duke under the provisions of the Sedition Act of 1920.
What are the limits of genuine freedom of expression if any, in a growing democracy? The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has observed that “the recent remobilisation of selected provisions of that 99-year-old Sedition Act is incompatible with citizens’ right to freedom of expression.”
MATT’s concerns appear to have a solid basis in history.
In his magisterial work Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, Professor Gordon Rohlehr chronicles the initial introduction of the Act in the form of the ‘Seditious Publications Draft Bill’ by Attorney General RSA Warner towards the end of February 1920.
To begin with, a dictionary definition of sedition is as follows: conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a State or Monarch. The Trinidadian law however contained within its provisions, in its definitions of “seditious intent” the promotion of ill-will or hostility between one set of citizens and another or the promotion of a feeling of contempt for any class of persons “distinguished by race, colour, religion, profession, calling or employment”.
Rohlehr goes on to observe that “…by this token, virtually all Trade Union activity was definable as seditious. Any criticism of King, Government or of those classes in whose interest Crown Colony government existed, could be interpreted as sedition.”
What is implied here, is that from the very beginning, some of the provisions of the sedition law were a concession to the class and racial anxieties of the upper echelons of colonial Trinidad and Tobago society designed, as MATT would observe almost one century later, to “intimidate into silence those wishing to express strong opinions on the social, political and economic circumstances of the society”.
Indeed, Catholic Social Teaching recognises human freedom (including freedom of expression) as a hallmark of our human dignity. It sees this freedom as necessary in order for the human person to shape his or her own life, to seek and find the truth and to attain the destiny for which he or she was made.
Catholic Social Teaching tradition on the other hand, does not absolutise human rights. Along with rights come responsibilities. The right exercise of the freedom of expression is governed by respect for one’s own dignity as well as the obligation to respect the dignity of others. Free speech is constrained to those expressions which, while being completely truthful, do not violate the human dignity of those who are its subjects.
In as much as one may correctly argue for the inherent right of humans to free expression, one should take note that in our modern age, beset by terrorism, there is a considerable amount of legislation against so-called “hate speech,” even in territories in which freedom of speech is legally protected. Incitement to hatred and violence are offenses against truth, against the dignity of human persons and against social justice.
Thus, the opinion has been expressed that what is needed is not a total eradication of the sedition law as an anachronistic relic of the past, but a conscious revision based on the realities of life today.
The gospel reading of this Sunday offers us both encouragement and motivation in facing the stiff challenges of ‘adulthood’, challenges like the sedition law.
In the gospel story, Jesus praises a servant who was about to be fired for playing fast and loose with his master’s money. It would be a mistake—because of our tendency to moralise—to say that Jesus was condoning corruption.
Jesus praises astuteness, toughness when faced with challenges and loyalty to one’s friends. This could well serve as a primer for political actors today. Notice that Jesus does not shy away from drawing rich lessons from the world of business wheeling and dealing.
In a similar way, as we grapple with the challenges posed by democracy today, let us not give up or walk away condemning the entire exercise as squalid or a waste of our time.