Friday, December 5, 2014

Censorship and the Need for a Freedom of Information Act in St. Lucia

December 5, 2014

It has been stated time and again that an informed citizenry is an essential prerequisite to the functioning of a democratic society. Indeed the Caribbean region is often hailed as being a bastion of democracy and stability by many academics in comparison to their Central and Southern American neighbours, where a historical cycle of coups, rebellion and dictatorships prevailed throughout the Cold War years.

In the present era, the intensification of globalization has been welcomed by the economic and political powers that be as a stabilizing force, one which brings financial, technological and information flows to all corners of the globe. Yet, despite these promises, globalization also has a much darker side, one of which outside of the threat of terrorism is very rarely discussed.

Despite the World Trade Organization promoting tourism and financial services as the saviour of St. Lucia after the enforced decimation of the banana trade, these industries have in many ways entangled themselves in a manner which threatens both meaningful development and democracy on the island. While it has been repeated ad nauseam that the forces of globalization seek to free up the restrictions former placed upon the mobility of capital, it in no way seeks to make the necessary information about these processes more accessible to the people that they purport to be serving.

A very real way in which this has manifested itself is the growing number of failed tourist mega-projects on the island and the related threats against bloggers, journalists and writers who seek to expose the realities of these deals.

Due to the efforts of the anonymous “Piton blogger”, we now know much more about the 3 failed and another stalled mega development in St. Lucia. The “Piton blogger” repeatedly pointed out that St. Lucia was witnessing the privatization of public lands with dire consequences for the local communities and environment.

Just to give an idea of the scale of the problem, a quick summary of the failed projects is as follows. The total cost to St. Lucian taxpayers to reacquire the Crown lands from the failed Ritz-Carlton development due to the 2008 economic crisis amounted to $EC 57 million. The Marquis Estate development was a multi-island development, which failed – dragging 3,000 British investors to fall victim to the $250 million USD scheme. The investigation has since been taken up by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. Thirdly, the La Paradis resort, located in Praslin fell victim to the CLICO insurance scheme which rocked the rest of the Caribbean. As a result, the massive development appears as an open wound on the Windward side of the island, a reminder of the excesses of the international financial sector – and the resulting burden placed on the general public.

Central to this point, the “Piton blogger” also sought to bring about transparency and educate the public on the new Freedom Bay Resort development, which is being built literally at the foot of the Petit Piton, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with government approval. The “Piton blogger” had frequently wrote articles outlining that the resort development threatened the status of the Pitons as a World Heritage Site due to environmental and cultural destruction (ie. Amerindian archeological items). Additionally, local residents were being forced to sell their property to the developer. The “Piton blogger’s” desire to follow the money and openly challenge to the developers resulted in the Friends of UNESCO site getting shut down in May 2013, after four masked men, wielding automatic weapons broke into the bloggers home stealing computers, modems and phones. US Federal Agents later confirmed that there was indeed a hit out on the “Piton blogger”, but the story has not surfaced in the St. Lucian mainstream media due to the fact that it may very well lead to dangerous territory.

In the midst of this situation, enter long-time journalist Jason Sifflet, who had previously wrote for many of the island’s established media houses. Sifflet began the Flogg Blog as an independent platform to ridicule the St. Lucian political system – leaving no party or politician behind. Given this journalistic independence, Sifflet wrote that the situation “… got real in ways I could not imagine. Unshackled from advertisers, media managers and the most vile laws stifling free speech in St Lucia, I was suddenly imbued with all my natural powers. As a trained journalist, a kind of heretical activist and a consumer of history, I couldn't help but make the FLOGG grow from a joke into an investigative journalism machine that reinvents the language, ethics and methodology of journalism in the image of Negmarron.”

Behind the veil of humor and the occasional curse words, Jason countered with pointed attacks on many of the issues which people discussed privately, but rarely, if ever publicly. One such issue was his controversial (albeit accurate) comparison of the island’s tourism industry and how it increasingly resembled an apartheid system.

Not long after the launch of his blog, Sifflet wrote that “I got my first death threat and law suit threat around this time [October] in 2013” – but it would not be his last. Several months later in August 2014, after criticizing and insulting the United Workers Party opposition leader and hotelier Alan Chastanet, his blog was mysteriously shut down, with Google stating that it supposedly breached their standards of acceptable speech, thus engaging in a form of “hate speech”. While the timing of the blogs shut down was suspicious enough, Sifflet’s estranged wife would then lose her job at the St. James Morgan Bay hotel, with pundits claiming everything must have been a simple coincidence and the public should not jump hastily to conclusions. While the Flogg Blog would eventually be reinstated, the death threats continued to follow. One can read Sifflet’s investigation and account of the death threats here.

While there are indeed a myriad of issues related to these situations, a major problem with all of this is that there is no St. Lucian version of the Freedom of Information Act to back up what the journalists, bloggers and writers are putting forward. While the St. Lucia Freedom of Information Act was drafted as a bill in 2009, it has yet to see the light of day in regards to its implementation. While the draft of the Freedom of Information Act stated that it would bar dissemination of information pertaining to commercial issues if it “i) contained a trade secret or (ii) to communicate it would or would likely to, seriously prejudice the commercial or financial interests of that third party”, the importance of this is that it would set a legal precedence or benchmark from which the public could inquire about the interaction between government and investors.

At a Regional Conference on Freedom of Information in March 2013, The Saint Lucia National Trust, Communications and Advocacy Officer, Karetta Crooks Charles remarked that, “it was inspiring to see how ordinary citizens, civil society and the media from fellow Caribbean countries were utilizing the FOI Access to Information laws to hold public authorities more accountable. Furthermore, it is hoped that Saint Lucia will follow suit and ratify its draft FOI Act of 2009,as well as sign on to the LAC Declaration on Principle 10 which promotes sustainable development through access to information, public participation and access to justice.”

Yet until this curtain is pulled back, to reveal those at work behind the scenes, brave individuals working in the public interest are called conspiracy theorists, straight out liars and increasingly threatened physically, economically and electronically censored. This is not the foundation of a democratic society, but rather that of something more sinister.

Whether or not St. Lucians agree with the writings of Sifflet or those of the “Piton blogger”, the reality is that they have both literally put their lives at risk in order to inform the general public about the inconsistencies and problematic issues related to some of the island’s major tourism developments. While scandal is often the engine of St. Lucian politics as is elsewhere, the fact that both political parties have stalled in regards to implementing a St. Lucian Freedom of Information Act is highly problematic considering their supposed commitment to the democratic process.

While many would argue that every investment involves a certain level of risk, it really downplays the reality of the situation in St. Lucia. While wealthy investors can literally walk away from failed projects with bankruptcy protection, yet given that the country is so small the government does not have that option. Indeed those left behind in their wake are subjected to a stream of debt, corruption and even death.

St. Lucia’s Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott remarked that he was “ashamed of my country”, referred to the ongoing development at the foot of the Pitons as “whoredom” but conceding “… what can you do when a country approves of its own disfigurement?” Indeed Walcott’s statement is in reference the current physical damage done to the natural environment, but it can also apply to the country’s political system which seeks to maintain this troubling status quo instead of taking measures to change it for the better.

While it might seem as a naïve goal, the only way to get rid of this block in the political system is to empower and protect the individual citizens who decide to become Whistleblowers with the ultimate goal of fostering an engaged citizenry. Let the argument be settled by facts and not threats. As such, these figures and the ones who will inevitably follow them must be protected from the grudges held by the private sector and their friends and potential business partners in both political parties, as acting on behalf of the public good should not be a death sentence.

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