By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
GOVERNING party MPs called for a change to “archaic” parliamentary rules yesterday, with some expressing concern that the Minnis administration could be perceived as swaying toward the side of dictatorship and possible censorship of the country’s free press.
According to Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine yesterday, House Speaker Halson Moultrie’s rebuke of a Nassau Guardian reporter on Wednesday for using her cell phone to take photos of an MP on the floor of the House went against the state’s mantra of transparency and democracy.
Speaker Moultrie’s actions were “in poor taste”, he said, adding reporters should have the convenience of carrying out their duties with liberty.
However, Health Minister and Elizabeth MP Dr Duane Sands said he did not see the situation as government’s attempt to stifle the press. Instead it was the consequence of outdated parliamentary rules, he said.
Meanwhile, Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller said he thought the situation was “mishandled” as the House sitting should have been briefly suspended to address the concerns instead of publicly and openly criticising the reporter’s actions. On Wednesday, Speaker Moultrie also accused the media of “descending” to a certain level, adding it was an issue that needed addressing.
He did not clearly explain what he meant, but told House of Assembly members that “fake” and opinionated stories had been published online and in local newspapers.
Beforehand, he openly rebuked the Nassau Guardian’s reporter seated in the House gallery for taking photos of member of Parliament Chester Cooper, who was contributing to debate on a bill to exempt fees for replacement documents lost during Hurricane Dorian.
Speaker Moultrie then ordered the reporter’s phone be turned over to a House clerk and the images deleted. However this never happened. Instead Chief Clerk David Forbes called the reporter outside the gallery and motioned to her to delete the photos. She then did as instructed, but later retrieved the images from her deleted files.
“They have to recognise that this is not a totalitarian state,” Mr McAlpine said in an interview with The Tribune yesterday. “Neither are we heading down the road to dictatorship.
“How can a reporter ask your permission if you’re in the chair and there are other people who are in the House taking pictures daily? You cannot be seen to be sanctioning or look like you are trying to quiet the press.
“I agree with the opposition on this matter and I suggest that the government remember that the pen is mightier than the sword.”
The Speaker’s decision drew criticism on Wednesday from opposition member of Parliament for Mangrove Cay and South Andros Picewell Forbes, who said a free press in the country should have the liberty of gathering photos and video with cellphones.
Mr McAlpine continued: “It was her personal phone and it is her right as an individual and a professional reporter has been infringed on.
“For a government that talks about democracy, transparency and accountability, they seem to be going down a road in the opposite direction of what they have been preaching.
“I would like to apologise to the reporter on behalf of the people of Pineridge because we thought it was in poor taste and even though we recognise the Speaker is the Speaker in the House, he must recognise that the press has a responsibility as the fourth estate to function with liberty.”
For his part, Mr Miller, a broadcaster, said he was of the view that reporters should not need permission to do their jobs.
“I am of the opinion once you come to the House, there is a procedure or process you go through and once the person is cleared as a reporter, that whatever courtesies are afforded reporters once they enter in that status should be automatic,” Mr Miller said.
“I don’t think you should have to get permission to do your job. That’s a part of your job description. That’s what you do. So once you (are) readmitted and allowed and enter as a reporter you should be permitted to do your job.
“I think that law is ancient and archaic - whoever made it. I think they were arguing that it was done under the Progressive Liberal Party. I don’t care who did it. I don’t care when it was done.
“Let’s fix it now. That’s why the people elected us to get it right. Personally I thought the House should have been suspended briefly and persons addressed off camera (and) off air,” Mr Miller continued, “because I’m a broadcaster. I am more conscious of it, but you have to know that you’re on live radio on live TV and this is going out.
“I have the greatest respect for the Speaker and what I am saying is not out of disdain at all, it’s just being objective and fair and honest. Whatever that rule is it needs to be amended.”
“It was mishandled yesterday,” he said.
For his part, Dr Sands said he thought Speaker Moultrie’s call for an update of the rules was appropriate.
He said: “I don’t think that we are in the slightest bit interested in as a government in censoring the press. This is the unfortunate consequence of rules that have not indeed been updated in years, more than a decade.
“You know trying to figure out how you strike a balance with an open accessible Parliament to one that is clearly not one where people accuse you rightly so of selective application of rules even in the face of discretion.
“So I think his call for an update in the rules is appropriate. The flip side of it is we have seen examples where there have been less than positive images coming out of the House of Assembly and I think what we ought to do is update the rules, find the sweet spot that is consistent with what we want to see for our Parliament,” Dr Sands said.
In May, after videos of a surprising outburst in Parliament went viral on social media, Speaker Moultrie ruled that visitors were prohibited from carrying cell phones into the gallery. At the time, he said the rule did not apply to members of Parliament, technocrats and the media. However, he said the media will have to seek permission from the House through the chief clerk to capture cell phone video.
He has said even the Hansard was limited with respect to footage according to House rules.
When making his ruling on Wednesday, Speaker Moultrie cited rule 89 of parliamentary procedures.