It was John Milton, the celebrated 16th century English poet who, in a crusading pamphlet against the government policy of imposing licences on printing, first articulated what came to be regarded as a defining characteristic of a free and democratic society. The concept that there exists a free and open marketplace where differing opinions and ideas compete against each other in a search for truth.
“Give me the liberty to know, utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” said Milton in the pamphlet known as the Areopagitica, considered among history’s most influential philosophical defences of the principle of the right to freedom of speech and expression. “Let (Truth) and Falsehood grapple,” he argued. “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
Free speech was a personal issue for Milton, as he himself had been subjected to censorship in his attempts to publish various pamphlets defending divorce, a radical stance to take at the time. The 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing, then a new medium of mass communication, was aimed at silencing, in the so-called “public interest”, persons whose opinions and ideas either challenged or were contrary to the mainstream.
It seems, based on remarks in an address last week to the annual general meeting of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, that if Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler has his way, he would take us back to those dark 16th century days when only those who spouted the official line, had unimpeded access to the marketplace to express their opinions and ideas.
Mr Sinckler chastized the local media for providing a platform for certain commentators to share opinions and assessments on the economy with the general public that are in sharp contrast with the official position. Mr Sinckler, whose management of the economy has faced heavy criticism, portrayed this “wild journalism” as an attempt to undermine confidence in the economy.
He said: “We now exist in an environment where it has become widely popular in most spaces that accommodate public expression and attract the new class of chatterati for opinion – most of it uniquely uninformed – to be spewed all around with the granular wish that it lands on the right ears and perhaps brings attention to its source. . ..
“Nary is a thought given to the negative implications of such commentary – far less the insidious contamination which it proffers to potentially infect the level of confidence which the average Barbadian and the not average foreign investor might have in our beloved country.”
Is Mr Sinckler suggesting that when it comes to matters pertaining to the performance of the economy, only Government is in possession of the truth? We do not share this view. Even among economists, the one thing for which they are known, is a tendency to disagree on approaches and prescriptions. It stands to reason, therefore, that open discussion, from as many perspectives as possible, can greatly assist the search for truth.
It is therefore not for the media to deny access to persons simply because their opinions may be contrary to Government’s. Indeed, the media ought to be representative of a free and open marketplace of ideas and opinions. Opposing views may not be to the liking of Government, but in a free and democratic society, the general public has a right to hear them as long as they conform with the law, and to judge them for what they are worth.
Besides, the right of freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution of Barbados. Section 20 (1) states clearly: “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression . . .. The said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference.”
It can be argued that largely due to Government’s failure to communicate effectively and level with Barbadians on key economic issues that it has created much doubt in the public’s mind.
The economy is not the exclusive business of the Minister of Finance or the Government, even though they collectively share the important responsibility of creating the enabling environment for growth to occur. Rather, every Barbadian is an important stakeholder with a vested interest. Every important issue, therefore, ought to be freely discussed. Besides highlighting shortcomings, such can also assist in identifying solutions.