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Selwyn Cudjoe Online

Govt turns a deaf ear

June 3, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

A WEEK after I spoke at Arima, a failed meeting as the Express called it, a woman from Valencia informed me that she came to our meeting because of the problems she was having in her district. UNC activists told her that if she wanted to keep her job she would have to join the UNC. In defiance she arranged a public meeting for our organisation in Valencia, joined NAEAP and declared stoutly: "I am a Trinidadian. I will join whatever party or organisation I want to join. I'd rather be dead if I can't speak my mind in Trinidad and Tobago."

This incident would not be important except it parallels what happened in the Lower House when the Speaker suspended Keith Rowley from sitting in the House. In doing so, he demonstrated a frightful tendency that is becoming more commonplace in T&T: the decreasing circumference of speech in our society. Woe unto any politician or political commentator who does not go along with the prevailing wisdom of the day. As Rowley noted: "I don't mind Government retaliating, but what I find objectionable is when the retaliation comes from the Speaker."

In a chamber where speech is supposed to be protected and boundless, the Speaker uses his authority to prevent the only avenue where a representative of the people can express the most outrageous of arguments.

The truth is that the Government and its cohorts are trying to limit speech through the crudest methods of intimidation. Although Ken Valley apologised for what seemed to have been a slip of tongue, the Speaker granted the AG leave to bring a privilege motion against him. Today, the Government holds the threat of suspension over Valley's head to be used at a moment of its choosing. It does not take much prescience to know the next foot will drop when the PNM wins the Gypsy-Chaitan matter.

Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear realise that Valley and Rowley were treated in stark contrast to the PM who accused Colm Imbert "of defrauding other Caribbean countries". In my world, that's the definition of a thief or a Caribbean rip-off artist.

Such intimidatory tactics also reached yours truly. Shastri Parsad, a brother-in-law of Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, the AG of Trinidad and Tobago, accuses me of "disparag[ing]" his reputation and lowering his reputation to "right-thinking members of the society" because of my comments in "The New Aryans". Apparently, he sees no merit in the truism that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. One would have thought that in an enlightened democracy where a former member of government is charged with murder the AG's brother-in-law would have given pause to representing such a client, particularly when the AG's wife is a senior partner in the firm in which he works.

One only has to look at the ruckus that was made when Hugh Rodham, the brother-in-law of Bill Clinton, the former President of the US, was paid US$400,000 in fees for lobbying for a presidential pardon for Almon Braswell, a businessman convicted of mail fraud and Carlos Vignali, a cocaine trafficker. One day after the press raised the matter, Rodham returned the money to his clients. Talk about despairing comments, the New York Times described Hugh and Tony Rodham and Roger Clinton, Bill's half-brother, as "ne'er-do-wells"[and] "offbeat in-laws" and wondered aloud if "at some point when they first met, Hillary and Bill [did not have] a long tête-à-tête about their siblings" (February 23).

In T&T, when the press enquires about such goings-on and columnists bring these matters to the public's attention, we are threatened with libel suits with the hope that we keep our mouths shut and deny our readers our insights. In this context, I agree with Kevin Baldeosingh's revulsion of vexatious spirits who feel the fear of litigation will prevent writers and thinkers from critiquing their actions as rigorously as they can, even though such criticism is interpreted sometimes as "Afrocentric nonsense" (Baldeosingh's interpretation of my analysis).

In the cases of Valley, Rowley or yours truly, the problem does not lie with the Speaker or the assumptions of lost dignity. It lies with a regime of un-truth that does not realise the value of ideas in a society and their power to widen the possibilities of our freedom. Although I do not care always for the ideas of Kamal Persad or Baldeosingh, I will fight to the death to support their right to express them even where there is little basis for the pretentiousness of declarations such as "paradigms like Marxism and Freudian theory have all been proven hopelessly wrong" (Baldeosingh wishes that he could prove such a contention).

As the Government and its agents fight down those who they feel oppose them, they create conditions that fragment the society. I insist that laws and conventions are "purposive enterprises" that cannot exist without a moral dimension. To me, the presence of an internal moral mirror is a necessary condition for the activation of one's ethical convictions. Where it is absent, venality consumes one's heart and mind. When free speech and legitimate comment are abrogated, it opens the way to more violent modes of expressing disagreements. Such a posture is not conducive to open dialogue, psychoanalytic healing, national cohesion and the struggle for social space. Even though the Government feels it has everything going for it, I would caution that it stop, look and listen. It is marginalising many of its citizens and sowing the seeds of national discord.

Decorum cannot rule when greed, ignorance and unethical behaviour desecrate social institutions. Amid the tumult of its own noises, the Government refuses to listen to what ordinary citizens say, transmit or telegraph to its rulers. Human freedom demands that people speak their truths and make up their own minds. Bringing down the iron curtain on free speech is a sure way to prevent the growth and development of a just and moral society.

It's one road that T&T cannot take.

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