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TedX Port of Spain’s challenge: Is free speech an illusion in Trinidad and Tobago?

It is not uncommon for people to hear statements like “but it is a free country,” “I can do what I want” or “I have a right to my opinion.” But, in Trinidad and Tobago, we have a myth of free speech.

If we think we can speak truth to power without fallout or backlash, we are sadly mistaken. There are three prominent examples I can think of.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

First, some may recall that our current Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley, was once relegated to the PNM backbench for objecting to “certain things” related to Udecott. Gillian Lucky was also relegated to the UNC backbench for speaking out about integrity issues and more recently Helen Drayton resigned for similar ‘integrity’ issues.

It would seem that in our country if you are prepared to talk about backroom dealings you are placed in the backseat. I had a recent encounter with our lack of free speech that opened my eyes. It should be something that worries is all.

I am the licensee and organizer of an annual conference on ideas worth spreading called TEDxPortofSpain. We ask speakers to give the talk of their lives. We tell them to imagine that it is the last talk they will ever give. What would they say?

Each year I can count on a speaker deciding to drop out because they do not want to be the person to bring these ideas forward.

TEDxPortofSpain works hard at asking our speakers to be bold, but the realities of Trinidad and Tobago are preventing our team from being able to bring the most daring ideas to the stage. Too many of our speakers have either gone the safe route or decided to give a less bold talk.

Photo: A speaker offers "the speech of his life" at TedX Port of Spain.
Photo: A speaker offers “the speech of his life” at TedX Port of Spain.

For the past six years, our team has sought speakers who can be bold on significant issues. This year our theme is “Reality Revisited” and I did not understand how real this theme was for many citizens.

This is not the first time we have had a speaker quit before the conference. But this is the first time it has dawned on me that citizens are under the illusion that they have free speech.

If you live in a country where you cannot speak truth to power without fear of consequences, you do not live in a country with free speech.

When I can point to several prominent people in our society who are afraid to stand on a stage and talk about their experiences, we have a problem with free space.

When we decided on the theme reality revisited, I had no idea I would have my reality revisited.

We have been organizing one of the best conferences on innovation and society. Attendees look forward to our event and add it to their calendars once we release the date. But when, as an organizer, I am finding it difficult to push speakers to share their most bold ideas, we have a serious democratic problem.

This needs to change. Until we can address freedom of speech, we will be living in a country ruled by financiers and big business.

Photo: Former JCC president Afra Raymond speaks at TedX Port of Spain.
Photo: Former JCC president Afra Raymond speaks at TedX Port of Spain.

There is a Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, who is quoted as saying “since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.”

We need new eyes to see and understand what is happening in our country. It is disheartening that citizens are afraid to participate in a forum about ideas worth spreading because they are afraid of victimisation for speaking the truth.

They are scared to be bold with their ideas. This can only stifle innovation, and we need to start curating spaces where people can stand up for integrity without fear that it would affect their career.

We do not have enough people of independent means, so we have a responsibility to ensure that our citizens can exercise their right to free speech. I, for one, would like to make sure that freedom of expression is no longer an illusion.

About Keita Demming

Keita Demming
Keita Demming holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. His podcast Disruptive Conversations is an effort to unpack how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think. Dr Demming has worked internationally and in a variety of sectors within the field of social innovation. He also holds the license for TEDxPortofSpain.

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51 comments

  1. Free speech made soo many people lose jobs back home, can’t tell you enough!

  2. A society in which its members are motivated only by self interest and not the collective good is bound to collapse. Too many freeloaders here waiting for others to sacrifice so they can reap the benefits.

  3. As we were taught in school, repeatedly & humiliatingly via the punishment of ‘lines’…’The way of the Transgressor is Exceedingly Difficult’….we have been trained from young to conform and not-transgress….

  4. So he agrees, but implies that because it is no different in other countries it is okay. We are smaller and we need to find spaces where people can disagree safely, which I think was the point I was making.

  5. Lasana so notice that I was saying here are examples were people stood up for integrity and instead of a dialogue they were ostracized. Afra Raymond is actually an example and there are others. Earl Best has not presented a counter argument to my point. In the other examples I suggest that if people are afraid to speak we have a problem. Presenting examples that some people are not afraid to speak does not falsify my original point. Some people are afraid, and some are not. Pointing out that there are rich people does not mean that there are no poor people. What matters is the number of people who are afraid to speak their truth is too high, and that is where the problem lies.

  6. Very vague article: “When I can point to several prominent people in our society who are afraid to stand on a stage and talk about their experiences, we have a problem with free space.” When you fail to identify said prominent people or the topics they were afraid to speak on, the we DO have a problem with free speech! This reads like one of those maddening newspaper articles where everyone is a “close relative” or has requested anonymity….

  7. People are taking the 5th because of the fear of court house.On the other hand we must be just fed up with the spin talkers.

  8. free speech is an illusion so are most of the speakers of TEDX port of Spain

  9. On FB people feel much freer to state their opinions or comments. Perhaps there is a certain level of anonymity that releases them.

    The illusion of free speech is also illustrated in the people who did not march on several occasions during the last government’s tenure starting with Section 34. I was there and can speak to the people who were in support but felt they could not come out or take time off from their jobs. They did however come out to look on as the marchers passed. There were also the people who came during their lunch hours to Woodford Square with their uniforms disguised.

    The persons who manage or supervise are acting at the behest of the employers or the government at the time (current and past) to muzzle anyone who wants to step over the line. The main sentence to me was: ‘We do not have enough people of independent means, so we have a responsibility to ensure that our citizens can exercise their right to free speech.’ People believe that they will lose their jobs and that is enough to keep the silence alive.

  10. You can do this if you arent in the corporate world…if you are, they are going to bury you with “confidentiality policies”

  11. Lol, our refusal to drag society into the present is reflected in the fact that we still have obscenity laws on the books. Is this speech an illusion would be the better question.

  12. The society infringes on free speech more than the govt

  13. No surprise. In small communities, 99 per cent HAVE to watch their back – and their living! Sad, but true.

  14. In as much as I agree with the idea that free speech is really an illusion…

  15. Some of those ppl only have mouth for one thing….

    • Afra I deliberately did not use the JCC example and then Lasana use your photo. If we were to make a list of people who get put in the back bench we might have a long list.

    • But that is how it does go.

    • Lasana Liburd…we have to acknowledge that ppl with integrity-those who call it as they see it-are doomed to survive on the outskirts of society. You can only be ‘in’ when you play the politics-not necessarily literally. But from the time you start ruffling feathers, questioning the status quo, you are automatically shut out and become a persona non grata. Which is why I wonder about the success of Gate. Do our young ppl take an active interest in issues facing society? Can they tnink critically rather than regurgitate what they are told? Can they research an issue and make a contribution? We are quick to jump on a bandwagon on issues facing the US and elsewhere, but seem either ignorant or oblivious to the issues facing us right here.

  16. Free speech in T&T? That’s an illusion; a cotton-picking dream; a fantasy!

  17. most people’s bread is beholdened to somebody else’s ego.

  18. Is it that there are few opportunities for persons in each field so we are more easily victimised? Or something deeper about our nature?

    • Nature. Definitely nature.

    • Well that is just truly f***ing sad then. That would mean we are a tiny rock full of pu**ies!

    • The culture definitely does strongly discourage challenging the status quo. The reflex is to fight down any new/bold ideas and I’ve seen a disturbing number of people do it without any apparent idea of WHY they were doing it.

    • Lasana Liburd acting brand new. You in sport….plenty pussies with stones in that field…and most of them at the helm of organisations.

    • Yeah. No doubt. But sport is almost designed for maximum leadership. Whereas a lawyer should be able to change chambers and a banker change financial institutions with less risk.
      In theory…

    • Ha. Across the board, too much power is invested in too few people who have too much to gain from maintaining the status quo.

    • Trinidad is small. Piss off the wrong person or group of persons and life becomes difficult. Not everyone wants to risk that for principle. Not trini nature, human nature.

    • Fayola, what are the rewards of playing the game though? A job in a work environment that will probably give you an ulcer? Low self worth?
      The knowledge, deep down, that you are part of the reason why the system will never work and will crush even your children and your children’s children?
      (Not aimed at you of course!)

    • That right there is the struggle, Lasana. Some will agitate and face the consequences, which might mean changing careers if they have that luxury. Others will remain silent in order to earn a living. I suppose it comes down to what one can stomach and whether one has the luxury of facing the inevitable consequences.

    • Well Lasana, thinking of the people who are approached to speak… it’s likely they aren’t nobodies in a soul crushing job. Perhaps it’s the nice life that you have built within said system that you are trying to preserve? Not everyone has the guts to be a disrupter. I try not to judge others.

    • Fayola, I think being able to forgive someone for their choices isn’t the same as not judging them. We judge people every day.
      If someone punches you and another person witnesses it but couldn’t be bothered to say anything for the aggravation, you won’t judge them?
      What about if it was robbery or worse?
      Our society falls apart without some level of care for our neighbor.
      If we all thought solely about self interest and didn’t judge each other, our world would collapse.
      In truth, it is the selfish ones who want to reap the benefits and give nothing back.

    • Some risks are more than others. Sure. I accept that. Risk assessment is necessary.
      But I won’t say I won’t judge someone for not speaking up.
      What if it is a teacher who sees the principal molesting a young student? And what if the student was your daughter or niece?

    • I think there’s a duty of care as a member of society. For example, if we’re in a recession and you’re witnessing rampant waste and corruption while you know others are struggling and suffering, you have a duty to make an effort (anonymously or not) to expose it. Fear of retribution is an understandable thing, but not an excuse for allowing it to go on.

    • Whoa that’s a huge leap there. But yes everyone will be faced with situations where they will have to choose if to put self interest before group interest. When I said judge I guess I meant condemn not have an opinion about.

    • I accept that we are all different. And some people are braver than others or more willing to take risks.
      So I agree that I won’t necessarily condemn person to the full wrath reserved for the actual abuser.
      But, to me, that person has put self interest ahead of the society.
      And if we all did that, we would be doomed. Our interests are best served in a properly run body.

    • Calisa Paulson…therein lies the rub. Report corruption to whom? Unless we start charging those with knowledge of corruption for failing to act on said knowledge-from police, public servants etc, then we are doomed to sit and have the same discourse every day!

    • To the public. The authorities generally know what’s happening and refuse to act unless the public forces them to, but the public can only do so if they know what’s happening.

    • The problem you may not realise is the forum available. In the past, you could have passed info to a journalist and they would follow up on a story with relevant research and fact finding. These days, there are not many journalists. So you have to expose yourself by using social media.

    • There are still channels for anonymous revelations.

  19. great article, and so true.

  20. But is this really that different from anywhere else? Any country you live in, including the developed western ones’s you will have persons opposing your ideas. Jo Cox was killed for her position on Brexit. Victimization is easier in smaller nations but it does not mean there is no backlash in larger nations. In larger nations 25% support could mean you still have ten’s of millions of supporters. With enough support from those that matter to you economically to still live comfortably. The numbers are not in your favour with smaller nations.

  21. “(…) our current Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley, was once relegated to the PNM backbench for objecting to “certain things” related to Udecott. Gillian Lucky was also relegated to the UNC backbench for speaking out about integrity issues and more recently Helen Drayton resigned for similar ‘integrity’ issues.”

    Keita, at least one of your examples is not about free speech at all! And I am not entirely convinced about the validity of the claim with respect to the other two either.

    I take the point that there are people in our country who are afraid to speak out, to “speak truth to power,” as you put it. But there are myriad examples of people who do say publicly what they think and who do so with impunity. Afra Raymond is one, Peter Minshall is another, Lasana Liburd is a third, Raffique Shah is a fourth, to name only those.

    So maybe the fault is not in our stars but in our selves, as Abeo suggests in another comment. Maybe the problem is nature and not nurture. Maybe the problem lies, as my brother used to say, in the difficulty of the culture escaping from itself.

    Or maybe TedX PoS is an idea whose time is not yet here.