The recent action by either or both the President and the Prime Minister, to have the Police investigate a speech of the Opposition Leader is very worrying for free speech in our country, since it creates a “chilling effect” on that foundational right of a democratic society. This chilling effect is the “inhibition of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction”. It is universally acknowledged that democracy began in the ancient Greek city states, where Euripides (480–406 BC) offered one of the earliest declaration of the importance of that value: “This is true liberty, when free-born men, having to advise the public, may speak free.”
More than a millennia and a half later, as the democratic imperative took hold against monarchical absolutism, John Milton, in his “Areopagitica” of 1644 reiterated this sentiment: “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Freedom of speech was encoded in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In democracies, freedom of expression is essential for citizens to participate in politics and society. If democracy is to mean “rule by the people, of the people and for the people”, then the people must be informed of any and all issues of the day so they can make informed choices and decisions on matters that will affect them and their country. In the speech by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, were two objected-to comments allegedly made at Babu Jaan in early March, at the commemoration of the death of former President Cheddi Jagan.
Against a background of the successful December 21, 2018, No-confidence Motion (NCM) being endorsed by the Chief Justice in the High Court, by which the President and Cabinet were to have resigned to comply with Article 106 (6) of the Constitution, the Opposition Leader told his Berbice audience: “When the Ministers or (President David) Granger or (Prime Minister Moses) Nagamootoo come here after the 21st of March, you say to them, walk behind them, chase them out. They are going to be illegal.” The said Cabinet had also taken a decision to unilaterally close two sugar estates in Berbice, throwing some 4000 Berbicians out of work.
After People’s National Congress MP Barbara Pilgrim – who had replaced Alliance For Change Member of Parliament Charrandas Persaud in the National Assembly – filed a complaint about Jagdeo’s remarks with the Ethnic Relations Commission, Jagdeo explained: “I made it clear at Babu Jaan that we are a party that does not believe in violence, we are not going to be burning people’s businesses, we are not going to be beating people on the streets, but the Government would become illegal after March 21 and therefore there will no longer be Ministers, so when they come to the communities, when they come to the communities…the people of Guyana should treat them as illegal, they should walk behind them and chase them out of your communities”.
Yet, after this explicit explanation, the Police acted upon the President/Prime Minister’s complaint and questioned Jagdeo about the above statement and also whether he had described the two officials as “jackasses”. The tape, however, clearly showed Jagdeo describing the two officials as “Judases”, as a metaphor for “betrayers”, presumably for reneging on their parties’ 2015 campaign promise not to close sugar estates.
The term “chilling action” on free speech was first articulated by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1952: “Our own free society should never forget that laws which stigmatise and penalise thought and speech of the unorthodox have a way of reaching, ensnaring and silencing many more people than at first intended. We must have freedom of speech for all or we will in the long run have it for none but the cringing and the craven. And I cannot too often repeat my belief that the right to speak on matters of public concern must be wholly free or eventually be wholly lost.”
Free speech must not be allowed to be fettered by political expediency.