In a news article on March 1 Richard Coe, CEO of Courts Jamaica, claimed some radio talk show hosts were destroying the country’s psyche through the irresponsible use of freedom of speech. According to him ‘the more outrageous they are the more they appeal to the lowest denominator amongst us, the more audience they get. Those who control the media have a huge responsibility, those who mould public opinion need to encourage positive productive action.’


The very next day the press reported on the trial for sedition of Cuba’s four best-known opposition activists, who have been in prison since July 16, 1997 despite many foreign appeals to President Castro for their release. At least two dozen other activists, who were planning to attend the trial in support of the four, were rounded up by state security. The four were arrested after distributing a document criticizing the Communist Party and calling for political and economic reforms. The government accused them jointly of “other acts against the security of the state in relation with a crime of sedition” and was seeking a six year term for Vladimiro Roca and a five year sentence for the other three dissidents.


As a highly successful capitalist, Richard Coe probably shares few of Fidel Castro’s opinions. But clearly both agree that “those who mold public opinion need to encourage positive productive action”. To be fair Mr. Coe expressed no wish to see Mutty Perkins charged for sedition. And it is a far step from accusing journalists of “the irresponsible use of freedom of speech” to arresting those who critique government documents for “acts against the security of the state”. Yet both reveal a common mindset and assume that the general populace is not competent to make judgements about publicly expressed opinions without the aid of higher authority.


(This also brings to mind the curious admiration some fearless critics of Jamaicly political system have for press censoring states like Cuba and Singapore. A Singaporean Mutty Perkins would be either bankrupt or behind bars, since anyone openly criticizing the government there is liable to be sued for libel by the state, which has never lost a case. A hypothetical comrade John Maxwell would no doubt be keeping Vladimiro Roca company in jail.)


Mr. Coe also said “I don’t have a problem with someone who comes on radio for half an hour who makes mischief, but I have a problem with 95 hours.” But if the Jamaican public had a problem with 95 hours, profit seeking radio stations would replace these mischief makers with more popular hosts. Mr. Coe of all people knows that the essence of the free market system, and democracy, is giving people what they want. (The claim that “the more they appeal to the lowest denominator amongst us, the more audience they get” is ironic, considering that Courts is not exactly using Mozart in their ads.) Certain talk show hosts do at times come across as negative nabobs impatient of opposing opinions. But who if not the public is to judge what is irresponsible or outrageous or positive? Radios all come with station dials and off switches.


The argument about what is acceptable and what is not is as old as civilization. In ‘The Republic’ Plato advocated guardians of public morality. But as Juvenal asked “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? - Who shall guard the guardians?” Extreme libertarians say all media should be completely unrestrained and allowed to broadcast even obscenities or incitements to violence. But even free speech must have its limits. The right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre is indefensible. And even the most liberal observer must recoil in horror at internet available photos showing six year old children having sex. No sensible person can welcome the widespread availability of such material.


But what about Bounty Killa’s line “Anytime me hungry again dem a go see me nine’, referring obviously to a 9 millimetre gun? Is this advocating violence or legitimately expressing the anger of the voiceless poor? My feeling is that to protect children and preserve the public safety, community sanctioned restrictions on expressions of sex and violence are necessary. Naturally the term ‘community sanctioned’ must be defined. For me, anything encouraging activities deemed illegal by a democratically elected state should not be allowed in the public media. But in the realm of politics, any voice not preaching hatred or violence should be allowed.


If we err, let it be on the side of freedom. No countries have larger gutter presses than the United Kingdom and the United States. The crude excesses of British tabloids are only equaled by the vulgarity of American day-time television talk shows. But it is surely no accident that the world’s two most successful democracies also have the freest presses.


As Thomas Jefferson once said, a free press is even more important to democracy than a free vote.

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