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Despotic Tendencies

Newsday Editorial

If the Government is not careful, it will soon gain a reputation as a dictatorial regime. Indeed, a significant proportion of citizens, not all of whom are reflexively anti-PNM, already have this perception of the Manning administration. This idea has been nursed mainly by the Government's recent legislative programme, which seems specifically designed to remove citizens' fundamental rights. Last Tuesday, a group of concerned persons, using the good offices of an Independent Senator, had read out in the Senate a petition calling on the Government to stop passage of the Judicial Amendment Bill. This legislation will effectively make public interest litigation impossible. Ironically, the only reason Attorney General John Jeremie was able to offer in defence of this Bill was that the courts were clogged with such motions - an argument which, if anything, proves the usefulness of the Act.

Then, last Friday in the Lower House, the Government tabled another Bill, this one designed to severely restrict citizens' right to information held by public authorities. Again, Mr Jeremie could offer no convincing defence of this legislation. His argument was that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as presently constituted allows citizens to access confidential information from organisations such as the Integrity Commission and the Anti-Corruption Bureau. But this is misleading. The FOIA has provisions which let the authorities deny information that could compromise national security or which, in respect to an individual, has no bearing on the public interest.

And, to add to the mix, the Telecommunications Authority issues a Draft Code which shows no understanding of the role and practice of media, but which was announced with several threatening noises from the politically-appointed board members piloting the Draft. Finally, the Government has put the scary cherry on this poisoned cake - by moving with unseemly haste to execute a convicted killer. In announcing the planned resumption of hangings last Monday, Mr Jeremie gave the assurance that executions would be carried out within the ambit of the law.

But the PNM's record in this regard is hardly reassuring - under Attorney General Keith Sobion in 1994, convicted murderer Glen Ashby was hanged while his appeal was still being heard by the Privy Council. However, this PNM administration seems to have learned a lesson, since the State did not contest the Constitutional motion brought yesterday by Lester Pitman's lawyers. This gives the Government an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath. Taken singly, each of these measures might seem just wrong-footed. Taken together, they reflect a pattern which the Government might not even be aware of, but which is certainly informed by an anti-democratic mindset.

Such attitudes on the part of politicians, more often than not, tend to be fuelled by the desperation of incompetence - typical of the bully who meets challenges with force because he is incapable of using finesse. No doubt the Government sees no reason to back off on hangings, given the wide public support the announcement has received. And it is likely the Government will try to push through its repressive legislation, confident that the Opposition can do nothing to stop it. But these actions have consequences, and the Government should be aware that, despite having a political predilection for maximum leaders, Trinbagonians have never favoured dictatorships.

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