Communication Minister Jamal Mohammed's e-mail to TV6 Head of News Dominic Kalipersad takes us back to 1997 and former prime minister Panday's "pseudo-racist'' outburst. The email exposed the reality that even now, politicians do not understand the role of the free press in a democratic society. Minister Mohammed's post-apology promise to meet media representatives to discuss their relationship with "the State", suggests that he does not even understand that he should not referee his own fight.
In our society it is not the responsibility of the press to promote political images crafted by advertising agencies. On the other hand, the press should not act dishonestly, recklessly or with improper motives. A balance must be struck, and as the Government's man in the middle, Minister Mohammed underestimated his significance.
But do not expect Minister Mohammed to be moved. His political bosses have actively promoted Panday's assumption that criticism and objectivity equates to an anti-Indian, pro-PNM, anti-change agenda. Lacking specifics and filled with aspersions, his email denounced a media-led agenda to maintain status quo and destroy alternatives to the PNM. And, with "brother" and "there is room for all of us", Minister Mohammed appealed to Kalipersad, in typical Panday-style ethnic tones.
Panday's 1997 outburst was similarly calculated. The local court, hearing the pseudo-racist defamation case, connected it to Panday's bold assertion that, "no one who attacked his Government would remain unscathed", and the court described it as an, "oppressive intention of silencing would-be critics of the UNC government''.
This government's intentions are not different. Panday's heirs have made no attempt to shake off the anti-press detritus. Minister Mohammed's e-mail is more than just an interference with press freedom. More than the actual content, the audacity of Minister Mohammed's e-mail strikes free speech in the widest form, political views, and the work produced by all "media" formats, and all manner of "commentary".
Standing apart from the protection of the press, the Constitution creates a separate right to express political views, and another separate freedom of thought and expression. As then chief justice Sharma noted in his dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeal's decision in the pseudo-racist case, that right to express political views stands on its own so as not to be subsumed in other rights where it would be subject to a variety of "strictures".
At the Privy Council, the court observed that, "the right to express political views is a right of fundamental importance in all democracies. That goes without saying. Clearly, the statement of this right as a separate right in the Constitution underlines the special importance attached to it by those who framed the Constitution. This is self-evident."
In Minister Mohammed's version of the case against criticism, the implications go beyond the traditional press, and to the fundamental constitutional freedom of thought and expression and the separate right to express political views. Under the Constitution, it is not just the freedom of the press that is sacrosanct, but also the freedom of every individual to thought, expression and political views. And these are what Minister Mohammed attacks under confidential cover to a "brother".
The fact is that while the Government has targeted the traditional media, there is a much wider expression of views which the Government faces, and which it also attempts to influence, manipulate or derail. In fact the traditional press, on which Minister Mohammed focused, should be the least of his concerns. There is greater, unedited criticism coming from the bloggers, social media and the wider online community. There are signs of the Government countering that online commentary through their bloggers and online presence. But if the Government becomes too paranoid about the pummeling it gets all around, the criticism will become more raw and determined. It is the same formula which got this coalition into Government.
There is no question about press responsibility. In the "pseudo-racist" case, the exploration of press responsibility was not relevant to the case and the Privy Council left the issue for another day. But the court did suggest that, "those who make statements at large on matters of public concern and seek to avail themselves of this extended area of privilege, in addition to acting honestly, should exercise a degree of care. This objective requirement should be elastic, enabling a court to have due regard to all the circumstances, including the importance of the subject matter of the statement, the gravity of the allegation, and the context in which it is made."
Until defined by policy, legislation or the judiciary, the relationship is in the hands of the politicians and the press. But that is only one, and perhaps a shrinking part of the world of political views, thought and expression itself. In the open, unregulated space, those who express political views, and those who report on the politics should do so responsibly, but fearlessly.
And, the Government must accept that responsible reporting does not mean positive reporting. This is where the Government is uncomfortable. There is a responsibility to exercise a degree of care having regard to the gravity of the story, disclosure or report. But no government should be obsessed with commandeering the expression of views which may be dissonant with government spin, but honestly held.
Private e-mails to a press "brother" will not resolve challenges. Those fall into the category of Panday's "pseudo-racist" rant, an ironic appeal to an ethnic enclave in the quest for national unity.
(Congratulations to Edmund Alexander, retiree and new UWI graduate)
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer