This article is a brief excerpt from a speech Maurice Bishop, as Prime Minister of Grenada, made to the 4th Conference of the American Association of Jurists, held in Jamaica, 10-12 November 1979. This excerpt deals with the Prime Minister's defense of the closing one of Grenada's local newspapers.
As progressive lawyer sisters and brothers, I would like to share with you the issue of the role of the free press, the role of the media and to give you some idea as to why the Torchlight, one of the local newspapers, was closed down a few weeks ago.
Our position is a simple one. There are people who are reading the temporary closure of the Torchlight as being an action directed against the free press, as being an action directed against criticism of the government.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our government is not afraid of criticism, in fact we welcome criticism. We believe that the Revolution has gained over the months some positive and constructive criticisms which have been made from time to time.
I can think of articles appearing in the very Torchlight which, for example, dealt with the question of long lines at the Treasury Building on Friday afternoons and a suggestion which was made to cut down on these long lines; that suggestion was immediately followed. I can think of criticisms directed at some of the comrades in the Army who were guilty of reckless driving: those suggestions were again implemented and it has had an impact on the amount of reckless driving that takes place.
So criticism we are not afraid of, but like everybody else we prefer constructive criticism - meaning by that criticism that is based on some tissue of fact and criticism moving from that fact, that then goes on to make a proposal that is aimed at remedying the particular wrong or error that the person feels is being committed. That would be obviously first preference, constructive criticism.
But we would even accommodate destructive, distorted, malicious and lying criticism such as the kind that the Torchlight was famous for, because we felt that the Revolution was strong enough to accommodate such criticism. That we could go back out there, that we could inform and educate our people and they would understand that lies were being told and the reality was different.
So when the Torchlight, for example, reprinted garbage coming out of the foreign media, the West German paper Bunte, e.g., saying that we had cut down forests in Grand Etang, saying that we now had missiles aimed at the other islands, saying that we had a Russian naval base in Carriacou, all of which are patently untrue, patently lies. The Torchlight printed that and their only comment was that they could not substantiate the facts, obviously therefore implying that what was being said was true.
The Torchlight again had taken to publishing information about security matters in our country - publication of a camp, for example, that was just being established and being established in secretive circumstances having regard to the enormity of the external threat which the Revolution faced.
The Torchlight was attempting over and over again to get photographs of my personal security men, something which, of course, is not allowed in any part of the world, and thereafter publishing these photographs on the front page of their paper. The article was called "Click-Clack" and the editor was boasting about the fact that notwithstanding attempts to stop them from taking these photographs, here the photographs were.
The Torchlight has consistently been refusing to publish the views of the masses. In fact when the people sent in articles they kept refusing. But so as not to sidetrack too much, what I was really leading up to was that even when the Torchlight gets into destructive and malicious criticisms, into distortions, fabrications and lies, even that, although we did not like it, and although we warned them several times about it, we were willing to accommodate that; but what we cannot and will not accept from Torchlight or from any other individual or organization is a situation where they move to actively stir up violence, to actively stir up disaffection, to actively engage in counterrevolutionary activities - that is what we cannot accept and that it what led in fact to the closure of the Torchlight three or four Sundays ago.
Torchlight Stirs Up the Rastas
The immediate background is that the Torchlight had carried in its Wednesday issue a front page story on the rastas. In that story three notorious lies were told.
The first was that we were throwing rasta children out of school when the reality was that the Minister of Education, Comrade [George] Louison, was doing exactly the opposite and on at least two occasions has instructed teachers to take rasta children back into the schools on the ground that we were not prepared to discriminate against anyone because of their beliefs.
The second lie was that we had promised the rastas land to grow week before the Revolution and had not kept that promise. That just happens to be a notorious lie which the Torchlight well knows because our published position has always been one that we were not prepared to accept any weed smoking in our party, not because of moral grounds, not because of legal grounds, but because we believe that weed smokers have tended to be counterproductive because of the occasions when week was unavailable many of these comrades just simply refused to engage in any political work. That was a position we could not take. So our position on the question of weed smoking is clear.
But the third lie was the most dangerous of all. That lie said that the PRA was now pointing guns at rastas in the hills and had begun a campaign to wipe them out. Now obviously when you make such an allegation concerning a dispossessed group in the society Who already feel that their backs are up against the wall, it must lead to a situation of resistance and that was indeed the way it developed.
Two days after this article, rastas stoned a number of PRA comrades who were going to their camp in Gouyave and on the Saturday after the article at one of their national rallies at which about 200 rastas attended, four of the speakers called for the use of violence, called for arms to be found to fight against the government, and all of the speakers referred back to the article in the Torchlight which had made this allegation.
Now that could not be tolerated.
We were not prepared in that situation to wait for the next morning for Torchlight to come back out with another story dealing with this call for violence and continuing in that way to try to join in the stirring up and incitement to violence in the country. We had to move at that and we did.
Role of an Independent, National, Responsible and Free Press
I want to raise the issue in a different way that relates to the question of what should be the role of an independent, national, responsible and free press. Many newspapers throw these words around and in so doing they hope to hide behind a so-called independent cover and hope that by the use of these emotive words people will believe that their views, which often are just the views of one or two members of the community, in fact are the national views. We are not prepared to accept that.
Our position is that if you say you are national and are independent, you must so act. If you say that you are responsible and free, you must so act. When the government is engaging in programmes, you must publish that. When the government goes abroad and comes back, you must publish that. If you must criticize, then criticize thereafter, but our view is that when the masses send in articles, they must be published. If you disagree with them, you can write indicating your disagreement.
But what the Torchlight had been doing was to totally blank out all of the government's programmes, all of the work that we had done over the months and to pretend that nothing was happening. All they were prepared to print was the plight of the detainees as they saw it, to deal with issues of anti-communism and such like, but what was really happening in the country was never reflected.
They even got to the stage where some weeks ago, when following two separate seminars that were held in our country, the people attending the seminars wrote letters to the Torchlight criticizing Torchlight for its behaviour, the response of the Torchlight in publishing articles one week later was to put a footnote saying that from now on, such views would no longer be published but. they would only be accepted as paid advertisements. In other words, they had come out clearly to indicate what they really were.
We do not see news in the same category as salt-fish or rice or flour. We do not believe that they should be first and foremost a means of investment. We believe that when you are in the newspaper business what you are really about is the job of educating and informing people and therefore you have a responsibility and a role that goes beyond the question of making a few dollars profit.
The Torchlight was in effect owned and controlled by two people - D.M.B. Cromwell, a local ultra-reactionary, and Ken Gordon of the Trinidad Express which had shares in the newspaper. Between them they controlled more than 35% of the shares and Cromwell acting in effect as managing director of day to day policy. He is one of the founding members of PALM, the same political party that is now implicated in the plot to overthrow the government.
Ken Gordon himself, - apart from being the second largest shareholder in the Grenada Torchlight newspaper, is also of course the majority shareholder in the Trinidad Express and the Trinidad Sun, is the largest single owner of the Barbados Nation and the Barbados Sun, also has shares in the Voice of St. Lucia, also has shares in the Reddifusion radio of Barbados, is also chairman of the board of directors of CANA, is also a very close friend, confidante and contact of Oliver Clarke, the managing editor of the Jamaica Gleaner, another well-known "E1 Mercurio" in the region: and it is clear to us that when the masses in the region believe when they read Express and then Sun and then Torchlight and then Nation in Barbados and Gleaner in Jamaica, and they believe that they are hearing ten and twelve voices, in reality they are only hearing one voice - the voice of a very small, reactionary minority clique that understands well that progressive changes are against their interest and who are therefore determined to fight those progressive changes at all costs.
Our position is clear: criticism - yes; national, independent, responsible press - yes; but it must, they must cooperate. We will not allow one or two individuals hiding behind the mask of being national and being independent to in fact peddle their minority views under the guise of being a national paper.
That will hot be allowed.
We have passed a law and under that law no aliens, no non-nationals will be allowed to own any shares in a newspaper company in our country. Under that same law no individual or company will be allowed to own more than 4% of the shares. In this way we believe there will be a greater chance of democratizing the paper, of ensuring that the views that come out do reflect a national concensus, of ensuring that the board of directors that results does reflect a democratic and national board, of ensuring therefore that the editor that gets chosen is in fact a serious professional, responsible journalist who understands the importance of his job.
We are very anxious to see the Torchlight newspaper reopened.
Tomorrow night I intend to meet with the shareholders at an Extraordinary General Meeting and there we are going to put forward the case of the government and we are going to be asking that a new editor be appointed to the newspaper.
So far as we are concerned, there needs to be only one guideline for that editor. If you are a serious professional, responsible journalist, then all you must do is act in that way. Publish a genuinely independent national responsible and free press. When criticisms come in, whether for the government or against the government, publish them; and if government wishes to reply, publish that too. Our position is as simple as that. Just deal with the reality in the country and we will be quite happy to let the paper continue.
So that sisters and brothers, is our position on this question of the Torchlight newspaper.
Role for Progressive Lawyers
"I want to end by turning to the question of what progressive lawyers like yourselves can do in the struggle for bringing about the rights of the people to economic independence, self-determination and social progress, and what progressive lawyers can do in helping to ensure the defeat of imperialism.
It seems to me there are two major roles.
One would be, of course, putting your knowledge at the service of the Revolution, at the service of progressive changes, at the service of progressive governments in the region and wherever else you come from.
Secondly, it would seem to me to be important to spend time on the legal aspects of the transition. To spend time on struggling in and out of Court to get people, including judges, to understand the class role and the function of the law, to understand that the purpose of the law essentially is to aid the state, especially its repressive arms in upholding the dominant class values of the elite.
It seems to me this is important as most people do not understand this. They do not understand why the law is really a law for the rich. They do not understand how it is that only the poor are in the jails. They do not understand how it is that the type of crimes that are on the statute books are really only aimed at the poor people, by and large. That for example there is a tremendous de-emphasis on economic crimes, and on sabotage and on tax evasion and such like.
They do not understand how it is that employers have so many rights but that workers virtually have no rights. They cannot understand that Protection of Employment Acts are a real luxury in this Caribbean region even at this stage, apart from civil servant who have at least a Public Service Commission to protect them, and this was because colonialism waned to give protection to that class of workers, and of course to the judges and the lawyers who work for the government who are protected by the Judicial and Legal Services Commissions; that the ordinary workers, the 95% of the people who are out there striving and toiling (maybe not as high as 95%, but the broad majority of workers) have no rights; that an employer can wake up overnight and go out and dismiss them - no reason given, no appeal to be made anywhere - they have to grind through the whole process of the ordinary courts of law and if they win at the end of that, perhaps they get their jobs back.
Now most of our people have difficulty in understanding why these things must be so. So by exposing these problems, by indicating what the true role of the law is, by looking at its class function it makes it a lot easier for societies in transition, like our own in the Caribbean, particularly those that are struggling with progressive changes, like the governments of Grenada and Jamaica for example, that many of the changes that we are going to try to promote will be resisted because people in the first place tend to resist change.
As lawyers you will remember that the simple Law of Contract, the simple law of executory binding contract of ensuring that a promise which is made, once it is accepted, forms a contract; that that simple law which today we take for granted took hundreds and hundreds of years before it could be institutionalized into the law books.
Because when the emerging capitalist class, when the merchants were moving around in the days of feudalism, they were stoned, they were hounded to death because of what they were proposing; their rights of free trade, their right to directly sell goods to people, their right to receive the money or whatever as a result of that transaction, that was subversive f, it was corrosive of the entire feudal structure which depended for its existence on a serf at the bottom, a Lord in the middle and the King ruling by divine right at the top; and of course, serfs had to work for the Lords and the Lords in turn had to give part of what they got from the serfs back to the King.
Now if you had a system of contract, a system of free trade operating in that situation, then it would mean that the entire social relations established by feudalism would be destroyed overnight.
Naturally therefore, merchants, and emerging capitalists were despised men, they were the prey of outlaw knights, of brigades, of kinds - many of them had to leave England and go on the Continent to pursue a living and it took them hundreds and hundreds of years of real struggle before they could get entrenched on the law books, that simple right to have a law of Contract established in a way that entrenched the principles of offer and acceptance leading to contract.
And if that can take so long to get done, how much longer will it take for other basic ideas that we are now trying to promote, that workers also have rights, that the people should be given decent housing, to receive proper education, to receive proper medical care and the necessary changes in the society to ensure that these things come about, must be done, must be entrenched not just legally, but also socially and institutionally.
Obviously these changes are going to take a long, long time in coming about and your role as progressive lawyers must be to help create the particular climate, the particular atmosphere that will ensure that our people understand the meaning of these changes, why they are necessary and what the legal bases for getting them in force may or may not be.
Thank you very much sisters and brothers.
Appreciation to The Guild Practitioner