By NICOLE BURROWS
I was born exactly 200 years (to the year) after the American Revolutionary War began. It was the beginning of the America we know today, and the beginning of its formalised civil liberties, creating examples for much of the rest of the world on how to protect individual rights and freedoms.
Theirs was not a perfect system, and in 200 years, it has been repeatedly tested. Nevertheless, it has evolved into the world’s largest example of true freedom.
You may dissent that America may not be the best example when it comes to many social and political issues, as per the judgments of many, but one thing is for certain and that is that the freedoms it espouses, while subject at times to great adjudication and modification, are reliably protected, codified and enforced.
When I started my college career in the United States, Bill Clinton had been president for just under a year. Until that time, we, in The Bahamas, were still reliant on the propaganda station, ZNS-TV 13, for most of our visual news and entertainment. Apart from the few US channels we got some reception from via UHF antennas, in partnership with the good old rabbit ears atop a TV set, we were pretty much insulated from the rest of the world’s influence, other than by radio, for good or for bad.
So it wasn’t until I left The Bahamas and went abroad for further education did I really see American freedoms in action. Of course, when we travelled to the US for vacation, and watched a bit of TV while laid up in a hotel room between shopping excursions, we might have caught a glimpse of the culture of America and its institutions of freedom of speech/expression, freedom of information/the press.
But, one night, while in college, in the dorm room I shared with my American roommate from Alabama, a political ad came on in which one candidate smashed the other with what could have been borderline slander. I watched in amazement and made a verbal expression, which I can’t exactly recall. But my roommate was quick to respond, and I will always remember it, clear as day, “this is America, girl – freedom of speech!”
And I kind of shrugged it off as if to say “yeah, okay, well whatever works for you”, but I didn’t consider the magnitude of her response, or that one day I would end up advocating for the same in my country, where, truth be told, I was under the impression that we had freedom of speech. But, in retrospect, I hadn’t learned or observed enough of Bahamian politics to know the difference between political theory/concept and practice.
The freedom of speech espoused in American politics, culture, life, is the core of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which, along with nine other amendments in 1789 comprised the original US Bill of Rights.
The swiftness at which my roommate jumped to defend her free speech, I suppose, was indicative of how seriously she and her fellow Americans perceived this particular freedom, and all its associated freedoms.
Now, I had also encountered other Americans who frowned upon any culture that wasn’t theirs and assumed that, because you weren’t American, you couldn’t possibly know anything or come from a relatively civilised society. So, I was careful to receive their comments with several grains of salt.
Such ignorances like “What language do you speak in The Bahamas”, when I’m clearly communicating in (“the good Queen’s”) English, and “Is The Bahamas, like, in Bermuda?” were prime examples of cultural ignorance. And, although it amazed me, I don’t recall ever being grossly offended by it, because the truth and reality was always illustrated at some point thereafter. And rather than take offence to the ignorance, I could seek to learn why it existed, and educate myself on why these people, though ignorant about so many things of the world they lived in, were so confident and deathly defensive of their constitutional freedoms.
The US constitutional freedoms of speech/expression, information/the press, and assembly/association work fluidly in tandem. You really can’t have one exist without encountering the next. They are the civil liberties of Americans, some of which are represented in Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Everyone has the right to freedom ... to hold opinions without interference ... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The Bahamas, in 2008, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), such that your and my civil rights and political opinions should be further protected, even outside Article 19. The purpose of all these freedoms working together is that they provide accountability and transparency of government.
Transparency is important so that civilians can clearly see what their government is doing, to minimise corruption within government, particularly to the extent that it encroaches upon or eliminates the rights of citizens.
Accountability is important because it makes the government responsible for what it’s doing, and introduces enforceable penalties for corruption within government.
Together, transparency and accountability help to fortify the core concept of good governance.
All that said, it would seem to me that such listed freedoms would be widely embraced in The Bahamas, especially when a political party finds itself in opposition to the current administration. These civil liberties are, to an extent, provided for in our own country’s constitution, but not at the level of written enforceability required to be the guiding force for the security of our democracy.
How do you go from one government administration to the next, over decades, skipping the necessary foundational elements of civil liberty in workable form?
Freedom of Information (FOI) is not a new concept. We’ve been aware of it since The Bahamas joined the United Nations shortly after our independence from Britain. So how has it escaped the enactment of solid legislation to affirm its relevance in our Bahamian society and politics?
Freedom of Information is an extension of free speech, which is equivalent to free expression, and to exclude it (FOI) denies the real enforceability of free speech/expression.
Freedom of Information asks for data that is not classified, such that it does not reveal state secrets which are necessary to the protection of a country’s security and sovereignty. It is meant to protect not people who want to reveal things that weaken security, but those who act to strengthen democracy and civil liberties. It guards against placing jobs and lives at risk to provide information which rightfully belongs in the public domain, so that citizens can make informed choices.
But, in a country like the Bahamas, where we thrive on looseness, the question then becomes, well, “what can be fairly ascribed as ‘classified’?” What gets labelled as such, by a dictatorial parliamentary democracy?
A lack of a compelling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is not a situation Bahamians can leave entirely up to their government to resolve. It is something that must be inspired by the Bahamian people, if they want to see their government operating effectively and truly on their behalf.
Have Bahamians become too (inherently) complacent that they don’t care enough about their civil liberties to even realise they don’t have them? Are they sufficiently brainwashed into their respective tribal positions, whereby the greater good is no longer relevant or desired?
A lack of position on this issue, or a blind trust in any government of the day to orchestrate the future of an entire country when they do not uphold freedom of information, is cause for extreme concern. What safe future does this provide for the people we leave behind? Even the worst person wants their family to be protected from harm. How is it that, until now, we have not demanded these protections?
A responsible citizenry holds its leaders to account for their actions and, more often, their inactions. As a Bahamian, how concerned are you about your freedoms? Or do you think Emancipation Day and Independence Day took care of all of that? How committed are you to ensuring that the necessary mechanisms are fully and firmly in place for good governance going forward?
Both PLP and FNM administrations are culpable in their lack of initiative, as neither organisation has sought seriously to provide a strong FOIA since their first years in government began. And it is for this reason that I continue to believe that neither fully understands what a free country should be, or neither truly cares to have a free country.
Wherever the freedom of information is not protected and duly enforced, and instead forcibly repressed, is a denial of all other associated rights and a sign of oppressive government.
You can’t have good governance without freedom of information. You can’t have freedom of information without having accountability and transparency. Period, full stop, as we say in the Bahamian vernacular.
Any government must recognise that the people will always be suspicious of and always in opposition to it, and will find it increasingly difficult to get and keep on its side, if it does not provide the necessary basic freedoms of a civil society.
Americans began fighting for their civil liberties in 1775. They actually fought a physical and bloody war for them. And maybe that is the unfortunate difference between them and us, their freedoms and ours. Their fight for freedom was felt in all respects and no one could escape it. Our fight was felt in few respects and most of our people escaped it ... until now.
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