Concerns have been expressed in the public domain that removing the Sedition Act will not be in the public interest as doing so will encourage lawlessness and irresponsible speech. These concerns do not fit historically with the intent of the Sedition Act which was never about protecting the public interest. Even so, there are already other laws that deal with threatening, abusive and insulting language, such as section 50 of the Summary Offences Act. If these are seen to be inadequate, then they could be strengthened, or a new law written.
It is important to note that several countries around the world have repealed their sedition laws, including Great Britain, New Zealand, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. And herein lies the irony.
While former colonies have mostly maintained a range of colonial laws (including the sedition law), Britain, the biggest coloniser, has moved away from a lot of these laws, even to the extent of acknowledging that they cannot be a part of a modern democratic society.
Some commentators argue that the Sedition Act should be amended, rather than appealed. I totally disagree, and my disagreement is rooted in why the sedition law was first created (both in England and in T&T), the way the law has been weaponised in the colonial and post-independent periods and the overall historical baggage of the law.
One of the responses by Government officials is that the Sedition Act is the law, and the law must be enforced. This position is deeply problematic because it does not consider that we have a long history of violent and abusive policies that were once lawful. This is particularly so within the Caribbean that has been so rooted in brutal European empires which maintained their dominance through the law.
Slavery was once legal, and so was discrimination against various races, religions and groups that did not fit colonial expectations of being. The legacy of our legal system, rooted in abusive social relations, lives on in a number of nonsensical laws.
According to Section 46 (g) of the Criminal Offences Act, “Any person who offers for sale or distribution or who exhibits for public view any profane, indecent, or obscene paper, print, drawing, painting or representation may be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and liable to imprisonment for two years.” Act 51 of the Summary Offences Act prohibits “indecency” in public places, specifically mentioning anyone who (a) is indecently attired; (b) performs any lewd or suggestive dancing or actions; (c) in any play, song, ballad or speech, uses language, or makes use of any recording which is profane, indecent or obscene, or which is insulting.
If the two above sections of the law were to be enforced then it would disrupt Carnival fetes, Carnival itself, artistic exhibitions, political rallies, radio talk shows, the Sunday Punch newspaper, cable television, music videos, double entendre calypsos, the sale of sex toys and even the sexualised electronic communication that sometimes occurs between two lovers. At any time, persons can be arrested for the above with the argument being that they have broken the law.
Section 71 of the Summary Offences Act outlaws kite flying in Port of Spain or any other borough, with a couple of exceptions. Section 105 bars any book, circular, pamphlet, handbill, poster or any other publication that does not have the name and address of printer and publisher. Remember when Inshan Ishmael, who was then being very vocal against the government, was arrested and charged for this in 2007?
Section 64 (a) forbids any vehicle being cleaned, washed or repaired on a street, while Section 64 (f) outlaws the singing of “any profane or obscene song or ballad”. Section 45 (h) outlaws anyone pretending or professing to tell fortunes. Section 45 (d) outlaws “any person who, without leave of the owner or occupier, affixes any placard or notice upon any building, wall, pillar, post, or fence, or otherwise defaces the same”. How many political parties routinely flout the law around election time with a tonne of election flyers and posters stuck in places without permission?
Social commentator David Muhammad recently brought up another section of the law (Chapter 48:51 (8) of the Motor Vehicles Act) which mandates owners of motor vehicles to notify the commissioner of transport in writing if they are leaving the country. How many people do this?
The fact that often such laws may not be generally enforced should not make citizens any more comfortable. When there are personal or political agendas or even social or religious biases, the law can be activated in ways that infringe human rights. I remember when the local Rastafarian organisation, All Mansions of Rastafari, held a rally to address marijuana laws, an attempt was made to stop the rally by relying on the Summary Offences Act 109(6) which forbids foreign speakers from speaking at a public gathering without a permit.
There is an urgent need not only to revisit the Sedition Act but other laws as well. The Summary Offences Act, especially, is very problematic.
What makes our many backward laws even worse is that they are not applied equally. There are deep biases at almost all stages of the justice system, from who is targeted and arrested by law enforcement to how persons are treated and sentenced by the judicial system. It would be naïve to think that biases exist in other areas and institutions of the society and not in the justice system.
—Part 1 appeared on September 2