Letter: Freedom of speech gives no one the right to malign people’s character

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana

Dear Editor,

A small band of the usual suspects, doomsday activists, are on a mission, not for the first time, to gag Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana’s Vice President and the Leader of the PPP. As the “Kool Aid” gang demands absolute right to freedom of speech, they also demand Bharrat Jagdeo’s freedom to speak must be curtailed. Many have tried before; none have come close to succeed. Raphael Trotman in Parliament, calling him a “fossil”, tried silencing BJ. Jagdeo is now VP and one of the most powerful politicians in the world today. Trotman is retired from politics.

The “Kool Aid” gang’s latest anti-Jagdeo tirade is a persistent fake narrative that Jagdeo wants Government to go after its critics who live abroad. They jumped to this conclusion because of a statement made by Bharrat Jagdeo during a recent press conference in which he was asked to address the issue of a summons from a Guyana Magistrate served on Rickford Burke in New York. The Magistrate issued a summons for Rickford Burke to appear before the court to answer a charge that he conspired with others to extort a local businessman. Essentially, the court has taken a position that any person charged under our law has a right to know that court proceedings are scheduled against him or her and that these proceedings will advance whether he or she shows up. The matter has nothing to do with any of the scandalous faked allegations that Burke has made against Bharrat Jagdeo or against the Government. It involves a matter of extortion against a private citizen.

The General Secretary of the PPP expressed a view shared by the vast majority of the Guyanese people that while everyone is guaranteed freedom of speech, that right does not confer on anyone the right to tell lies, to misrepresent facts, to fabricate stories and malign people’s character. The freedom to speak one’s mind comes with an obligation to defend what one says if it becomes necessary. When a citizen feels maligned by anyone’s statement, that citizen has a right to ask the other person to justify his or her statements. Citizens can ask the court to intervene when they feel maligned.

Jagdeo never addressed the issue from the perspective of anti-Government propaganda. Why would the Government want to curtail anti-Government propaganda from people living overseas, when there are even more fiercer critics living right here in Guyana and are free to peddle their lies, misrepresentations, obfuscations?

In Rickford Burke’s case, the Guyana Government is not a party to any proceeding. It has not sought extradition of Burke. It has not sought any measure to restrict Burke in carrying on with his fabricated narrative. But the Government cannot and will not restrict any citizen from seeking redress against anyone fabricating lies, misrepresenting facts and maligning anyone’s character. The fact that some people feel empowered to recklessly malign other people through social media platforms while hiding in another country should not prevent a citizen from seeking redress. In fact, the Cyber Security Act of 2018 enacted by David Granger’s PNC-led APNU/AFC Government precisely protect citizens against any form of cyber-bullying regardless where the bully resides.

Basically, Bharrat Jagdeo insists correctly that the same Constitution and the same laws that confer freedom of speech also provide citizens and entities with protection and that they can resort to the law to seek redress. It is simple. Nothing that he said sought to restrict anyone’s ability to exercise his or her freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech protects the right to opinions, no matter how murky this territory is. But the law provides protection for the person who might feel he or she was unjustly characterised by an opinion. The irony is that many of the “Kool Aid” gang resort to the courts with libel suits to restrict many of us from expressing our opinions. They want to have the full freedom to express their “opinions”, but restrict others from so doing.

Countless courts, commentators, philosophers, and parliaments and the UN have eloquently for decades underlined the critically important role that freedom of speech plays in promoting and maintaining democracy. However, freedom of speech provisions in Guyana or elsewhere inherently also come with braking points, a line at which the hateful or harmful or controversial nature of speech causes it to lose constitutional protection.

The anti-Jagdeo band is not fighting to secure freedom of speech, but to secure the license to speak with impunity; not freedom of expression, but rather freedom from the consequences of that expression; not just to be heard, but never to be challenged. Not only do these free speech “warriors” demand that their opinions or fake allegations be heard on all possible platforms they choose, from Facebook to Twitter to letter columns, but they also demand that there be no objection or reaction from those they malign. They essentially demand a privileging of free speech for themselves only. For them the privileging of free speech entitles them to the right to create discomfort without the jeopardy of being held accountable.

But the fact is that all constitutions and laws and treaties relating to democracy and freedom always contain braking mechanisms for free speech. John Milton puts it this way: “Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libelous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy, that man’s prevention can use.” In Guyana’s case, Granger’s and APNU/AFC Cyber Security Act is one example of the braking mechanism that basically utilises Milton’s remedy. Many of the free speech “warriors” today have many legal challenges in our courts against many citizens for exercising their own free speech, essentially seeking Milton’s remedy.

Freedom of speech is freedom to speak, not a right to speak without consequences. A moral right to express unpopular opinions is not a moral right to recklessly malign other people without justification and without facing consequences. The present free speech warriors demand their right while preventing the maligned from confronting them. They seek to invoke the fundamental conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria, on the one hand, and parrhesia, on the other. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom, and without consequences.

Because the internet is inherently a global communications system, “bad” speech can arise from foreign as well as domestic sources. The ubiquity and structure of this newest and most powerful communications technology magnify free speech harms exponentially beyond anything we have encountered before. Guyana’s laws, and the laws of almost every country, argue that, if it is left unchecked, the very existence of democracy is at risk. It is for this reason that Guyana’s laws remove the ability to hide in another country for those who exercise the ancient Greek’s parrhesia. Bharrat Jagdeo and the PPP Government promotes the isegoria concept of free speech while the “Kool Aid” gang demands parrhesia as the definition of free speech. Democracy is messy enough with isegoria; it is under fatal threat under parrhesia.

Sincerely,Dr Leslie Ramsammy