The judgment delivered by Justice Frank Seepersad on Wednesday in favour of this newspaper, its editor-in-chief and publishing company underscores the urgent need for strengthening legislative protection of press freedom and journalistic sources.
This newspaper took legal action against the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police and Police Superintendent Wendell Lucas because we recognised the danger to press freedom and our democracy of allowing the police raid on our premises and the seizure of data files to go unchallenged. The events that occurred at Express House on March 11 last year were chilling and marked the crossing of a new and disturbing threshold in a creeping and relentless assault on the media perpetrated through a battery of laws from the Attorney General’s office, a pattern of police intimidation and a social media-based propaganda machinery designed to undermine public confidence in the media.
All citizens should be concerned about the cumulative impact of the Data Protection Act with an Information Commissioner of unchecked power; the Cybercrime Bill 2017 with no public interest exemption; the Sedition Act that criminalises journalistic reporting; the Interception of Communication Act which criminalises the receiving of phone calls from prisoners; the Proceeds of Crime Act which was used to enter, search and seize property at the Express; and the partial retention of criminal libel laws.
To these we add the Government’s aborted attempt to amend the Freedom of Information Act to reduce the public’s access to public information and the continued failure to deliver legislation to protect whistle-blowers.
We feel vindicated by Justice Seepersad’s judgment that the police exercise conducted against the Express was unlawful and unconstitutional. Moreover, we endorse his position on the need for legislative reform to buttress the constitutional right to press freedom by raising the bar for securing warrants to enter and search media houses. We fully agree with his recommendation that “search warrants which involve the unearthing of source information should be issued by judges of the Supreme Court”.
The March 11 incident was an extraordinary and brazen move against press freedom in this country, and this newspaper signals its intent to go all the way if Justice Seepersad’s judgment is appealed. What happened on that day was an outright abuse of police power. It came in the midst of a Sunday Express investigation on financial matters involving Assistant Police Commissioner Irwin Hackshaw which had been flagged as “suspicious” by the Financial Intelligence Unit. It must also be noted that the raid occurred while ACP Hackshaw was acting in the position of Commissioner of Police.
While we accept that no right is absolute, we hold to the position that press freedom is constitutionally protected because of its critical role in safeguarding our democracy. As such, the decision to grant warrants to enter, search and seize property at media houses cannot be taken lightly. Law enforcement must be carefully balanced against the right to press freedom.
What happened on March 11 was nothing short of a witch-hunt which has been rightfully repudiated by the court.