Editorial — 06 March 2019
For a little more freedom of speech

The Belize Times, in its headline story last week, declared that the Prime Minister was flirting with contempt when he made certain pronouncements about court-related matters at the Business Forum held at the Belize City Civic Center a couple weeks ago. The PUP has a battery of lawyers at their disposal, so they should know what they are talking about.

The Belize Times headline story said: “The People’s United Party regards the Prime Minister’s assault on [a judge] as deliberately designed to interfere with cases actually before the Judge, to intimidate the wider Judiciary, to scandalize the court and ultimately undermine the rule of law.”

PM Barrow’s comments might deserve greater scrutiny, but today we choose to confine ourselves to a matter the narrow charge of judge-bullying evoked — that being the apparatus that cloisters the court’s judgments from our analyses.

The following is drawn from a copy of the PM’s statement that was published on Channel Five. The PM said that hardworking young government attorneys have been slighted on different occasions by a certain judge, and he was worried that their spirits could be broken. He said he was getting his information from the Attorney General, and that information is that the judge’s cruelty has reached “epic proportions.”

The Prime Minister said: “Justice is a not a cloistered virtue. You can’t, you can’t be a judge and think that you are immune from criticism if you behave in a way that deserves criticism. As long as we are not talking about the judge’s integrity, and I have made plain and I will repeat, that is not what is the issue.”

In an article in the Amandala, Rowland Parks said that PM Barrow stated: “It cannot be right for a judge to treat¯not just representatives of the Crown or the government¯any representatives of litigants before him in the fashion that our people complain of.”

There are indeed a number of stories that can be unraveled from the speech to protect young attorneys from bullying, many important issues to contemplate. One of these is about freedom of speech. More and more our country is becoming a place where people who are fully capable of defending themselves, run and hide behind the law. There is malice, and threatening words and these must be stomped down. There is fair comment, and truth and these must be nurtured.

The Prime Minister said that he was using his platform to complain about the bullying of some young lawyers in the government’s employ. He insisted that his comments had nothing to do with certain judgments that had been handed down recently. We could wonder if he was being sincere. We won’t go there. We could wonder if the PM was concerned about judgments to come in the future. We are not going there either. This is about the suppression of speech, and how that stymies the essential public discourse which is so vital for political growth.

The mast at the top of the Belize Times’ front page reads, “The truth shall make you free.” That line comes from the Bible, John 8:32. We are not going to opine on the truthfulness contained in the Belize Times. We are not about commenting on the truthfulness of any newspaper or media in our country. Our argument is that we will never know the truth if we don’t have freedom of speech.

The Prime Minister should have the right to comment on judgments in the courts, especially ones he doesn’t like. To suggest motive, such as dishonesty, is difficult territory. But it would be good if he (and we) could question the judgments of a sitting judge if it causes our eyebrows to go up.

Dean Barrow, the Prime Minister of Belize, is a senior lawyer. At the very least we should have expected that his government would have been able to defend the people’s business in the courts. The courtroom is the man’s domain. The courtroom is to him what a classroom is to a teacher, or a patch of green grass is to a football player.

It absolutely has not worked out for the Barrow government (and us) in the courts. If a football player had as bad a record as he has, they would have to hand in their boots and uniform, or their team would rip those gears away from them. If the students of a certain school teacher consistently got the worst PSE scores, that teacher would have to go back for further training. The Prime Minister is presiding over a debacle.

He, the PM, should have full license to comment about our failures in court, and our system has a clothespin on his mouth. A goodly number of Belizeans could enjoy seeing the PM squirm. His party has made the philosophy of “reward your friends and punish your enemies” look like their own concoction. But what kind of laugh would that be when we, the people, are the ones paying for the show?

We said that this is about freedom of speech, the total picture. It is a terrible thing to suffocate speech. In the Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, some tailors play on the vanity of the king to make a fool of him. They tell him that they can make clothing from cloth that became invisible when seen by persons who were unfit to hold office in his court, or who were very stupid.

This is a story about vanity, but it is also very much about freedom of speech. For various reasons, everyone was afraid to speak.  The entire charade went on until one little boy looked at the naked king parading through the streets and called him out.

If you speak your truth to political power, you could lose your job or not get one. In the matter of judgments from the courts, we could face contempt and go to jail.

Our present judges didn’t make our laws. Their judgments are based on existing laws. The wisdom of the people can help a judge in their deliberations. The law is strict, but judgments are tempered by mercy and circumstances. All we are saying is that it would be good if judgments of the court weren’t so protected from the scrutiny of our scholars, and the general public.

We shouldn’t be so worried about words breaking the spirits of judges. They, judges, are brilliant people who have every capacity to defend themselves; they are capable even of making unprepared junior lawyers scurry to hide under the expansive wings of the Attorney General, and the Prime Minister.

The Belize Times says the Prime Minister is after bigger game. We are saying that when the results are poor he should be free to blame his boots, if he were a football player, or blame the lack of chalk, if he were a school teacher. And we should not be afraid to sift through his excuses, explanations if you prefer, and sift through the judgments, and comment about who we think is not up to their game.

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Deshawn Swasey

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