THE words uttered by the erstwhile hard-working, well-meaning Attorney General Carl Bethel this week “free speech has limits” should have sent chills up and down the spine of every Bahamian citizen or individual resident in this country.
Freedom of speech is defined as a principle which supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate opinions and ideas without restraint, censorship or fear of retaliation by government. It is as pronounced in the Constitution of The Bahamas - where there are three references to it - as it is in the Constitution of the United States where it is protected by the First Amendment.
A basic tenet of democracy, freedom of speech is one of the most precious protections guaranteed by our Constitution. Like freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of religious expression, protections guaranteed by freedom of speech must be tenaciously guarded even if that guarding takes the form of openly expressed outrage.
To ignore the threat expressed by the Attorney General aiming to silence the group known as Rights Bahamas - thus silencing its ability to expose alleged abuses against anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant or non-Bahamian - is to turn our national backs on the freedoms we hold dear.
To ignore what is implied by the threat to freedom of speech is to enter a rabbit warren which can only have one outcome, the increasing silence of the voice of opposition to government. That, indeed, would be a frightening scenario which could only lead to a slow erosion of personal freedoms for which our forefathers fought so hard.
Dare we forget the principles on which this country was founded by a people fleeing persecution for their beliefs and seeking a place where freedom of expression would allow them to worship as they wished?
We understand the Attorney General is frustrated. Despite what we assume are its best efforts, the government has not fared well in court against Rights Bahamas. A long history of disrespect for immigrants compounded by an announced deadline that all illegal immigrants must be out of the country, compounded by a recent surge of random round-ups, is coming back to haunt the current government.
Chaos at the Department of Immigration - where corruption allegedly has been rampant and every Minister with responsibility for the department has tried without success to tackle it - leaves a system dependent on pay-offs and seeped in injustice. That situation and a confused policy has left thousands stateless, including children of parents who overstayed or whose status was never regularised. The result is an underclass of residents.
Many of those people work but are unable to bank what they earn because they have no legitimate identification. Others subsist by remaining invisible, picking up odd jobs, living below the radar. Still others dodge and dart afraid of authority, living in conditions no human being in The Bahamas should have to endure. Yet having lived only in The Bahamas all their lives, they have nowhere else to go and The Bahamas simply does not know what to do with them, acting as if they were a problem to solve like a battery to dispose of rather than human beings with hearts and souls and families and dreams.
Yes, we understand the Carl Bethel who came out swinging when the FNM was swept into power in May is today a frustrated man. We had faith in him when he vowed to tackle corruption. We had trust in him when he expanded anti-corruption legislation to the Integrity Commission Bill. We knew he was where he was because of what he was – a bull dog in a fighting ring. But we fear he has taken the desire to fight too far.
You cannot fight against human rights or those who expose abuses. You cannot threaten to silence those who expose a flawed and historically troubled immigration system by putting limits on freedom of speech.
The Constitution does not “suggest” freedom of speech. Nor does it state the people of The Bahamas are guaranteed freedom of speech when politically expedient. In Article 23 and again in Articles 127 and 137, references to freedom of expression are clear, unfettered and straightforward. Article 23 refers to the “right to receive and impart ideas and information without interference” as part of the protection of freedom of expression.
There is only one reason to limit freedom of speech. Known as clear and present danger. Freedom of speech can be limited when information imparted or words spoken incite riot or cause harm. The typical example is screaming “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.
When Rights Bahamas spells out 52 laws in a pamphlet, laws as basic as Immigration and the Defence Force do not have the right to beat you, or Immigration does not have the right to search your home without a warrant, or it is illegal bribery and corruption for Immigration to make you pay money for you to be released and freed.
This is not crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre. It is a cry that Immigration, not the group defending human rights, needs to be fixed.
Immigration is a full-time job and should not be assigned to a Cabinet minister with an already hugely burdened portfolio because he is believed to be a man who can get things done.
However wrong the assignment, it is a far less grave mistake than an attack on the rights of Bahamians to express themselves without fear of retaliation. Do not make the mistake of tampering with democracy because of an ill temper over a legal battle that deserves to be independently decided by an independent judiciary.
Mr Attorney General, we all believe in the rule of law and it is your privilege to take the high road and set an example of legal excellence.
Please remember though groups like Rights Bahamas pursue a similar path. Their arguments aren’t personal attacks on anyone or attempts to undermine our society. All they desire is fairness and equality under the law for everyone - as is their right.