THE MEDIA Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has called for the Sedition Act to be repealed and claimed it was being used by the State to constrain free speech and could potentially criminalise journalists and all citizens.
MATT made the call in its Independence Day release "commemorating the 57th anniversary of this country’s self governance, sovereignty and democracy.
"We pay tribute to generations of journalists who have contributed to the national project through their dedication to press freedom and freedom of
expression, major pillars upon which our Constitution stands."
MATT said, as the association reflected on the journey from crown colony to independent existence, the recent re-mobilisation of selected provisions of the 99-year-old Sedition Act incompatible with citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
"The 1920 law imposes restrictions on citizens’ exercise of free speech that are so low and sweeping in an independent, 21st Century democracy as to
render all citizens vulnerable to criminal charges. Worryingly, the Sedition Act, introduced by colonial authorities to suppress independent critical views, permits the 'suspension of newspapers containing seditious matter' and applies further to all written and printed material."
MATT pointed out "seditious intent" is broadly defined as “an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against Government or the Constitution”, “to raise discontent or disaffection amongst inhabitants of TTT” and to engender “feelings of ill-will towards, hostility to or contempt for any class of inhabitants of TT distinguished by race, colour, religion, profession, calling or employment”.
"MATT sees the Act as potentially criminalising journalists, media houses, public interest activists, trade unionists, artists, bloggers and assorted social media commentators."
The association said recently it has been resisting incursions into free speech and press freedom that were identified in the Cybercrime Bill 2017 and the association one month ago focused its public education and advocacy mandate on protection of the Freedom of Information Act.
"We view current activation of certain provisions of the Sedition Act as, disturbingly, another effort by the State to constrain fundamental rights of free speech and press freedom."
MATT said, whatever the outcome of the charge against trade unionist and Tobago House of Assembly Minority Leader Watson Duke and the charge or charges being contemplated against Radio and TV Jaagriti managing director Sat Maharaj, "the fact that the Sedition Act has been invoked already serves to intimidate into silence those wishing to express strong opinions on the social, economic and political circumstances of the society.
"The limits of free speech in independent TT should not be left to archaic law, the purpose of which was to protect the status quo by
criminalising our heroic forebears."
MATT said the Act’s anachronism is evident in its 11-page schedule of prohibited publications, among which are numerous trade union periodicals, defunct regional news sources, Cuban publications and a long list of official material produced by the People’s Republic of China.
"We wonder whether the Sedition Act is also to be activated against representatives of countries, like the People’s Republic of China, with which
modern TT has significant co-operative and investment arrangements."
MATT urged the Government to review the Sedition Act with a view to repealing it and also called on the police to account for what can be interpreted as selective application of the law’s provisions.