Almost five decades after it last emerged as a matter of headline public concern, the charge of sedition once again signals a deplorably negative official attitude towards freedom of expression.
It was back in 1972 that the Mighty Sparrow had recorded a calypso warning, inspired by the Public Order Act infamously promoted by then attorney general Karl Hudson-Phillips. “Sedition, careful,” Sparrow sang. “Careful how you talking…/Your right or your left hand/Raise it, it’s straight apprehension/And police detention, charged with sedition…”.
All of a sudden, high-profile public figures are being investigated and are facing threats of prosecution for being too loose with their tongues for the likes of listeners in official positions. Police interest in Messrs Sat Maharaj and Watson Duke follow several instances in which words and actions by opposition activists were loosely labelled “unpatriotic”, “treasonous” and described as “worthy of criminal investigation and may qualify as the serious crime of sedition”, by no less influential a figure than National Security Minister Stuart Young.
This newspaper has previously recorded our discomfort with Minister Young’s instinct for extreme conclusions and his all too casual references to crimes against the State, rendered more concerning since his is the line ministry for the country’s security personnel and apparatus.
It remains unclear exactly which official figures are taking offence over what is judged to be intolerably extreme expressions on matters of public affairs. But Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) head Sat Maharaj has suffered the experience of two searches of his radio and TV Jaagriti station and related offices, allegedly in pursuit of evidence relevant to sedition charge or charges. Such charges have ostensibly been contemplated in response to distasteful on-air remarks by the controversial figure.
Disturbingly, it has taken months, and costly litigation, before Mr Maharaj could be allowed to see one of the warrants authorising search of his Central Broadcasting premises. The message came across clearly: sedition charges constitute a real and present danger to all who would give their mouths liberty on presumably sensitive matters of public affairs.
The Maharaj sedition affair was still making the rounds of public curiosity when colourfully outspoken Public Services Association (PSA) president and Tobago House of Assembly Minority Leader Watson Duke attracted police attention supposedly for remarks uttered months before. In the Duke case, matters went further than with Mr Maharaj; Mr Duke was last night charged with sedition.
Nobody knows what further detriment such charges and or investigations might incur but intimidatory effect is been realised by the police searches and detentions. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith denies any political pressure has led to the police actions against Messrs Maharaj and Duke. But that is hardly any consolation for public and other figures moved to exercise a constitutional right to free expression in word spoken and written.
Is sedition to be considered a new, or renewed, menace to the exercise of freedom of speech and press? The public, outspoken members in particular, and newspapers, which are a special focus of the Sedition Act, urgently need to know.