Yesterday’s debate on the Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill, 2017, was instructive, both for what was said and what was not said. Hopefully, Barbadians paid very close attention and did not allow political affiliation, sympathy or apathy to muffle their ears to what was discussed in the Lower Chamber.
Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler articulated that “sometime between 2000 and 2009 personal telephones in Barbados and internet communications…were intercepted under the last Government”. Mr Sinckler referred to an affidavit before the Supreme Court that substantiated the claim. During the debate, reference was also made to the report from the Police Service Commission (PSC) that provided prima facie evidence from individuals corroborating that illegal wiretapping had occurred in Barbados within the mentioned ten-year period. Mr Sinckler made it pellucidly clear that he was not accusing then Prime Minister Owen Arthur of any complicity in what transpired and what had been a breach of Barbados’ criminal laws. Indeed, Mr Sinckler noted that Mr Arthur himself had been a victim of illegal wiretapping.
But perhaps the most important statements on the issue were made by Mr Arthur and have brought much-needed exposure to some unsavoury summers in Barbados’ history. Mr Arthur had this to say: “This is a serious matter, but I can state categorically that no Cabinet I presided over in my 14 years in office sanctioned the tapping of any person’s telephone.”
The former prime minister added: “Under Section 8 of the Police Act, the Commissioner of Police is only answerable to the Governor General, not to any political leader, so any matter of this nature is between the Police Commissioner and the Governor General in office at the time. It is a policing matter, not a parliamentary one.
“Anyone who claims that phones were tapped for matters other than national security must bring proof. Bring the evidence because such statements have implications for the entire Cabinet.” the now independent Member of Parliament for St Peter said.
Whether Mr Arthur has ever been made privy to the report of the PSC is not publicly known. However, what he made clear yesterday was that he did not sanction any wiretapping. What was also clear is that during the period 2000 to 2009 there was no threat to national security brought to his attention that would have necessitated a breach of the Telecommunications Act. Had there been a national security issue, it stands to logic, procedure and protocol that the Prime Minister of the country, the Attorney General and the Cabinet would have been apprised of the facts and circumstances of any national situation that would necessitate a breach of existing laws.
Additionally, based on the report from the PSC which was signed off on by its members, as well as the then Governor General, no national security issue was brought to the attention of the Queen’s representative in Barbados that would explain the necessity for any person or persons in the Royal Barbados Police Force to breach the very laws the constabulary is obligated to uphold.
There was also no suggestion that wiretapping was conducted in consort with Section 82, Subsection (2) of the Telecommunications Act in relation to the Royal Barbados Police Force “acting in the lawful execution of its duties in accordance with any law or enactment.” Neither the PSC’s report nor contributors to yesterday’s debate made any reference to the High Court of Barbados ever issuing a warrant to authorize the wiretapping of the homes of law-abiding Barbadians. Of course, we are of the view that there is a place for wiretapping in law enforcement but it should be done within the authority of enacted legislation.
Adding his voice to yesterday’s debate Prime Minister Freundel Stuart stated there was “sworn affidavit evidence” that there had been interference with the communication of some elected officials and other persons in the community. He said the wiretapping occurred to people “who have no sense of being involved in any wrong-doing, who go about their duties lawfully serving the country.”
But whether Mr Stuart and Mr Sinckler realized it, yesterday’s revelations or regurgitation of known history did not paint their administration, the PSC or the Royal Barbados Police Force in the most positive light. If the PSC’s contention is that a criminal offence was committed as asserted by those in authority, why didn’t the Commission initiate a criminal investigation of the person or persons responsible for contravening Section 82 Subsection (1) of the Telecommunications Act and have that person(s) answer to a criminal charge? Why was the matter not referred to the Royal Barbados Police Force for investigation? Why were the findings of the report not referred to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration and advice?
Member of Parliament for St Michael South East, Santia Bradshaw, was perfectly correct when she said yesterday that the current Government had [almost] ten years to have the matter investigated along those lines and did not do so. Illegal wiretapping has been an issue that many local authorities, including the Fourth Estate, have seemed afraid to touch – for whatever reasons. And this is sad. It should never go forth to our citizens that where criminal conduct, investigations, exposure and punishment are concerned that there is one set of procedural justice for the plebs and another for the patricians.