30 October, 2009
“Is there some law on the books in
Anguilla that precludes freedom of the press? I was told once that all "news" in Anguilla had to be pre-approved by the government. Is this really true?”
These questions were posted as a comment on this blog recently. I thought the questions deserved a little more attention.
The answer is, No, there is no law in
Anguilla precluding freedom of the press. There is no requirement for news to be pre-approved by the government. What we have is self-censorship. Effective censorship does not require a law.
The truth is not easy to come by anywhere. Gold must be mined, it is not normal to find it lying about. Nuggets of news require investigative journalists to dig them out of the dirt. There are no investigative journalists employed by any newspaper in
Anguilla. The reason for this lack is obvious. The island population is tiny, about 15,000, and the newspaper circulation is accordingly limited. There is no money available for a newspaper to pay a journalist. The editor/owners try their best, but their time is consumed in trying to raise revenue by selling advertising space to keep their newspapers alive. Since the population is too small to permit a newspaper to survive on sales alone, the owners depend on government and other advertising. Anything controversial published is likely to affect sales. It is suicidal for a newspaper to publish anything controversial. Investigative journalism is discouraged for these reasons.
The radio stations are small, one-man shows. Typically they provide entertainment and permit publication only of inoffensive public announcements. They depend on advertising to make an income. They cannot afford an investigative journalist for all the above reasons. The radio talk-show hosts are an exception. The call-in programmes hosted by John Benjamin, Elkin Richardson, Yanche Richardson, Haydn Hughes, and others, have brought a breath of fresh air to what was previously a stink of stale air.
From an administrative point of view, what the public does not know cannot hurt. The more they know, the more uncomfortable and difficult-to-answer questions they will ask. So, when a tricky question is asked, it is always preferable to deny knowledge, promise information in a future that never arrives, or simply to conceal information from the public. The traditional
system of suppressing adverse news prevails. It has always been so in Westminster Anguilla since the British took over the administration.
To give you an idea of how it works, take the case of the Indian doctor who was in
Anguilla about 20 years ago doing research on alcoholism. I cannot remember his name or the exact date, but all of us of a certain age will remember the incident. The doctor did research for his thesis on the rate of consumption of alcohol in Anguilla. The figures for alcohol consumption that he arrived at were staggering. The administration in power at the time was concerned that if his figures were true, it would have meant that Anguilla had one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the West Indies. He was quickly stopped from doing his research and told to leave Anguilla immediately. His research came to an end. Nothing was ever published.
Think of what that incident reveals. Think of the consequences of this type of behaviour. If the doctor’s research had been published, and his conclusions were faulty, it would have been possible for other researchers to demonstrate his error. For example, Anguilla might have been importing 1,000 cases of scotch whiskey, but smuggling 900 of them into
on our trading vessels that were so numerous at the time. If that was the circumstance, our alcohol consumption would have been ten percent of what the import figures would have suggested. Forget for a moment the other implications. Grenada
On the other hand, if his figures were true, I submit that it is likely that we would not have the present alcoholism epidemic that we presently have in
Anguilla. The evidence of the epidemic is mainly anecdotal. It is widely assumed that large numbers of working men go to work in the mornings with a flask of rum in their pockets to keep them going throughout the day. Large numbers of working men in Anguilla have rum at breakfast time. Numbers of the children of alcoholic parents in Anguilla arrive at school drunk. So I am told by those who should know. If the Indian doctor’s research was true, and if it had been allowed to be published, government would long ago have begun an education drive to combat the problem of alcohol abuse if the facts had been disclosed when they were discovered. We would be well on the way to curing the problem. Covering up the problem only allows it to fester under the covers. That is the result of the deportation of the doctor and the hiding of the information that he was providing.
Government cover-up is supported and encouraged by short-sighted citizens who believe that publishing the truth when it hurts is offensive. People who talk about such societal problems are described as traitors to
Anguilla. They are condemned as being unpatriotic or worse. We all remember the recent incident when the young American school teacher told her home-town newspaper that one the strange characteristics of Anguillian society was that there was no café on the island, as there is a religious sect that is quite prominent in society that promotes the myth that drinking coffee is an evil to be shunned by all except pagans and heretics. On the other hand, she said, there are more rum shops and other commercial outlets selling alcohol from early in the morning to late at night, something that North Americans find troubling. She was telling the truth. We all see the construction trucks stopping early in the morning at the working men’s restaurants and rum shops all over the island for the men to stock up on beer and rum. Or, do we turn our eyes and refuse to see? The truth of her story did not stop a witch hunt from the usual hypocritical suspects when word of her interview leaked back to Anguilla. She was hounded into making a public apology. The principal of her school was obliged by public pressure to make another apology on behalf of the school. I was embarrassed for them all. But, I understand the need for hypocrisy. The school was and still is dependent on public support for its survival.
This form of self-censorship is all-pervasive. It is as destructive and as dangerous as any that could be imposed by a law. There is no need for a law to enforce censorship in
Clearly, one solution is to have a Freedom of Information Act, together with the education and the institutions that make such a law work. With such a law any citizen who is interested in a particular issue will be empowered to demand the information. Every citizen will be made into a potential investigative journalist. Sunshine and fresh air will prevail.