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 Bahamas Commentary

2004-11-23 03:31:42

Legacy Of Fear

Very few people want to be quoted, and all because - one assumes -outspokenness and free thinking have been penalised so brutally in the past.

Lynden Pindling was nearly three years into his first term as premier when I addressed some of the Bahamas' major movers and shakers at the now long gone Montagu Beach Hotel.

My audience was made up largely of influential middle-aged business and professional people, all of them apparently keen to hear a young foreign reporter's view of Bahamian society as he saw it.

The place was packed to the doors and one of my most vivid recollections is that my microphone was adjusted for me by the then deputy police commissioner Albert Miller, later to be knighted after a successful career as a top executive in the Grand Bahama Port Authority.

It seemed odd that a senior figure in Bahamian society should be facilitating the convenience of a young, opinionated whippersnapper from The Tribune, but I took it to mean that they all wanted to hear every word I said. It never occurred to me to wonder why.

Thinking back, the potential for calamity and all-round embarrassment was immense. For one so young to be pontificating on weighty matters like press freedom and totalitarian thinking in someone else's country, and in such a tense political climate, was mind-boggling.

But there I was, behind the lectern, bold as brass and ready to blow.

Who invited me? I don't recall, but what a brave, misguided soul he must have been. And what somersaults his mind must have been doing at this moment of reckoning as I stood there preparing to vent on the government of the day.

I was driven to the meeting in an elegant black Daimler owned by The Tribune's publisher, Sir Etienne Dupuch. He was typically cheerful and gung-ho as we swung through the hotel gates and swished up the drive to the lobby door. I felt then, and still think now, that he was gallantly attempting to steady my nerves for what lay ahead.

If he had any misgivings about what was to come, he didn't let on. Yet I was only twenty-five at the time, full of youthful arrogance and, on reflection, an incredibly presumptuous young man as I set out to expose what I regarded as “totalitarian tendencies' in the new regime.

Sir Etienne had little idea about the contents of my speech. He had a vague impression that I was going to defend the freedom of the press, but had no detailed foreknowledge of the tirade that was to follow. He sat in the middle of the crowded room with his friends and, I guess, just hoped for the best.

The audience fell silent as I cleared my throat to begin. After joking my way through the preliminaries, I moved into my stride and - for the best part of 45 minutes - accused the Pindling administration of everything from intimidation to victimisation, and much else besides.

The government, I said, was involved in a conspiracy to besmirch the characters of those who crossed it. I decried its scheming under-handedness. I lambasted its dishonesty. Even in the context of the times, when there was an uneasy edge to Bahamian life, this was explosive and provocative stuff.

Only a few months before, the PLP had considered introducing legislation to curb the freedom of the press. It was a staggeringly ill-judged proposal which earned the party well-deserved, and blisteringly savage criticism from erstwhile media friends abroad.

Fortunately, Sir Etienne mobilised his international contacts to block the move before it could be translated into law. And I appeared on Florida TV to berate the measure with all the self-righteous indignation of youth.

It was against this background that I made my appearance before the Rotarians. In my pocket was a letter which proved, beyond any doubt, that a government plot was afoot to deport a journalist colleague on the basis of unspecified “activities' which had clearly been cooked up to smear him. I remember holding it up to show my audience. They were, quite rightly, appalled at this attempt by politicians to wreck a good man's character just because they wanted him out of the country.

By opposing the press law so vigorously, and giving so much space in his paper to my allegations of behind-the-scenes plotting, Sir Etienne performed a double service. He not only helped to thwart a move which -had it been allowed to run its course - would have had very serious consequences for Bahamian society, but also exposed a conspiracy which foreshadowed the horrors to come.

Looking back over my speech today, I inevitably cringe at its more extreme comments, and feel slightly embarrassed by its excesses, but by and large feel vindicated by what transpired in later years. In its own small way, it was a remarkably prescient speech for one so young.

The victimisation of my journalist colleague was but an early example of what was to follow as hundreds, probably thousands, of Bahamians fell foul of a government which, during its 25 years in power, made a habit of persecuting those who stood in its way.

Pindling's vindictiveness, which cruelly undermined the lives of so many people, became a dominant feature of his time as leader. Having powered the country to majority rule and independence, earning the mantle 'Father of the Nation', he became increasingly dictatorial and did, indeed, adopt attitudes more fitted to totalitarian regimes in Latin America and Eastern Europe. This trait soon led to a split in his party, and a quarter-century of growing disillusionment.

Today, the Bahamas is, in some respects, a much less threatening place than it was then. True, crime has risen alarmingly, and the roads are more hazardous, but there is less political unpleasantness about, and racial tensions are no longer strongly evident. In those days there were still scores to be settled, and there was a disconcerting stridency among those newly elected to office, but now this young nation is maturing into one of the Commonwealth's true success stories, with a multi-cultural society remarkably free of racial stress.

Radio talk shows introduced under the FNM government have led to greater freedom of expression over the last dozen years and no-one in government nowadays seriously considers curbing the press. The media, and especially The Tribune, is criticised by politicians from time to time, but no-one has been rash enough to threaten controls.

Indeed, the Bahamas' record today on press freedom - probably as a result of those harsh lessons of the late 1960s - compares extremely well with any country in the world. So far as I am aware, no working journalist in the Bahamas today feels under threat from authority, unless they are government employees constrained by their contracts.

And none, I feel, fears for his or her life, as is often the case in developing countries where anti-media paranoia is rife.

The Commonwealth Press Union issues regular bulletins on journalists who are detained and threatened in other lands, but the Bahamas remains laudably free of censure. It's been a long time since anyone suggested press freedom in the Bahamas was under threat. And that is all for the national good.

Yet many Bahamians believe that things are not entirely as they ought to be where free speech is concerned, probably as a result of those dispiriting days of the 1970s and 1980s when the Pindling government made life miserable for so many by penalising dissenters, demonising opponents and making life for expatriates so uncertain. There is, it seems, a residual fear hanging in the air, by-product of a regime which - given the chance - would have encroached on personal freedom much more than it did.

It is interesting, for instance, that so few people feel prepared to go on the record when disclosing even the most innocuous information to the press.

A reader who alerted The Tribune a few days ago to refuse being dumped in the sea added anxiously: “But don't mention my name.' A businessman exposing an alleged scandal in a Bahamian youth movement insisted: “I must remain anonymous.' Even a couple commenting on the aftermath of 9/11 said: “Please don't name us.' For pity's sake, why not?

In the course of a working week, newspaper staff have to fall back repeatedly on terms like “informed sources' and “unnamed officials'.

Very few people want to be quoted, and all because - one assumes -outspokenness and free thinking have been penalised so brutally in the past.

It is noticeable, too, that pressure groups representing aggrieved sections of society, or community causes, are virtually non-existent.

Apart from environmentalists and animal rights activists, who speak up for marine life protection, wetlands conservation and other similar issues, it's hard to think of a single cause in the Bahamas that is actively promoted by a highly vocal, properly-constituted organisation.

As a result, there is a distinct lack of intelligent public discussion on a whole range of matters that directly affect the lives of all.

In the last few weeks, for example, there have been disclosures in The Tribune which, in most western societies, would have provoked outrage.

The fact that a Jamaican man was held in Fox Hill Prison for 14 years AFTER he had served his sentence - and was released only when a Tribune reporter revealed his plight - is totally indefensible.

This callous disregard for a fellow human's suffering ought to have prompted an explosive public debate and questions in the House. Instead of which, resounding silence.

The alleged inhuman treatment of inmates - including women and children - at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre was alarming enough to attract the attention of the international press. Amnesty International weighed in with harsh condemnation. In the Bahamas itself, there was nothing by way of public debate, and certainly no sense of outrage.

For several days last month, the British press was full of hard-hitting stories about a tragedy on Paradise Island, when a couple's child was killed by an out-of-control speedboat. Lack of accountability in the Bahamas was the theme pursued by British critics, who decried shoddy regulatory practice and scarcity of compassion. The Tribune reported it. But the public here said nothing.

Some months ago, INSIGHT disclosed truly dreadful conditions at Fox Hill Prison, highlighting the kind of degradation and inhumanity most civilised countries would find unacceptable. There was no response, save one reader's comment that it was “very revealing'.

Considering the amount of mental and emotional energy expended in the Bahamas every weekend on church-going and grandiose religiosity, one would have expected some comment on the humanitarian implications of these revelations. Instead of which, nothing but deafening silence.

A middle-aged Bahamian teacher was willing to give her appraisal of this problem “so long as I don't have to be identified.' Her words are worth recording, in spite of her anonymity.

“In a small society like this, a word out of place can have severe repercussions. There are political animals out there who are looking for any excuse to jump on people who step out of line.

“Anything said that is critical of a minister, say, or an MP can bring reprisals, sometimes not in any obvious way but sneakily. It might mean lost business, failure to get a particular job, a terminated contract...

“There is, unfortunately, a culture here in which followers are favoured and opponents are given a hard time. Politics runs like a faultline through Bahamian society. Everything comes down to politics in the end.'

This culture of victimisation did not begin with the PLP, but the Pindling administration made an art of it. People learned to keep their counsel or suffer the consequences. Those who spoke out were often subjected to years of upheaval and disruption. In some cases, they were unable to work in their own country.

The fact that the situation has improved marginally over the last dozen years or so is at least encouraging. The talk shows have “freed up' some of the inhibitions that were once rife...and The Tribune's traditional fearlessness continues to ensure that the Bahamas keeps a hand-hold on free expression.

But there is still an over-riding belief in the Bahamas that silence is the best policy if one is to avoid fall-out of one kind or another. Thus, healthy debate in several key areas is stifled by the people's own unwillingness to chance their arms.

In the late 1960s, around the time that the PLP came to power for the first time, there was a student group in Nassau called UNICOLL. It gave voice to young intellectuals, mostly college-educated, who wanted a say in their country's affairs. Its existence was, in itself, an indication that politicians would not have things all their own way, and that keen young minds were ready to hold them to account.

Where is the spirit of UNICOLL today? Where is the consumers' organisation that will speak out against the flagrant abuse, through inflated prices, of the Bahamian people? Where is the prison reform group prepared to take the horrors of Fox Hill in hand and make things happen for the better?

Where is the legal reform group that insists on accountability when people's lives are laid waste by negligence and lack of responsibility? Where is the health watchdog to keep the medics in line? Is there a Bahamian Ralph Nader out there?

And, most worrying question of all, why hasn't the College of the Bahamas emerged as an intellectual powerhouse where topics of the day are researched and discussed fearlessly? Why are the country's “thinkers' allowing crucial social and intellectual issues to drift by them without offering any worthwhile comment?

The simple answer is that everyone fears the political, professional and commercial ramifications of speaking out. But cowardice does not serve the common cause. It gives sustenance to political bullies and makes everyone less free with every day that passes.

Political activist Rodney Moncur, who insists on putting his name to all his public utterances, acknowledges that things have improved since 1992, but still insists that the Bahamas is far from a free-speaking, free-thinking society.

“There are only a few real men in this society,' he told INSIGHT, “You watch how many people say 'Don't call my name'. But when I say something, I want my political enemies to know it is me talking.

“Since 1992, there has been some progress towards boldness and openness, but there is still some way to go. When Dennis Dames led students from C C Sweeting School to parliament on February 3, 1983, to protest over delapidated conditions at the school, he faced intimidation.

“In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, there were a series of pressure groups, but they were not welcomed by the PLP. There was a culture of discouraging it. But we have to encourage the next generation to become more active, more vocal. It is vital for the development of our society.'

He added: “There are times when it seems we don't want an informed society. Most people are anti-education, anti-intellectualism.

Politicians don't want people criticising them. But this means there is no true democracy.'

Fearless discussion is the lifeblood of a free society, yet its existence in Nassau is evident only through the pages and on the airwaves of certain sections of the media. The Tribune's track record in this regard is well-established, but The Bahama Journal, Love 97 and The Punch have added their weight to the cause of freedom in recent years, while ZNS and The Nassau Guardian, it seems, continue to run on rails laid down for them by whoever their political masters happen to be at any given time.

In my callow youth, I berated those Bahamian 'journalists' who were no more than pamphleteers and propagandists, serving the will of their political controllers. I even invented a special award - The Silver Grovel - for what I termed the “toadies and tailwaggers' of the tame media.

Unfortunately, there are probably still several potential Grovel laureates around, and I feel shame that there appears to be so little genuine courage among many of those practising the one profession that needs it most. Without a fearless press, society is in chains.

For free speech to triumph, the people's active and sustained involvement is crucial. Speaking out, either by individual voices or through the collective strength of vigilant organisations, needs to be so much part of the culture that “authority', whatever form it takes, dare not oppose it.

At the moment, too much in the Bahamas goes unsaid. Free speech is fragile: if you fail to use it, you lose it. Like it or not, the frightened society I spoke about three and a half decades ago still exists. Less obviously than in 1969, perhaps, but it is still there.

• What do you think? Fax 328-2398 or e-mail:

John Marquis, The Tribune
Monday, November 22, 2004

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