MATT: Sedition Act potentially criminalises journalists, activists, etc; Gov’t should review and repeal

EPL Infrafred Sauna

“MATT sees the Act as potentially criminalising journalists, media houses, public interest activists, trade unionists, artists, bloggers and assorted social media commentators.

“[…] 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…”

The following is a statement by the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) on the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service’s use of the Sedition Act:

Photo: A satirical take on self-censorship.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) joins in 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.

As we reflect on our journey from crown colony to independent existence, MATT considers 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. 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 Trinidad and Tobago’ and to engender ‘feelings of ill-will towards, hostility to or contempt for any class of inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago 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. Recently MATT has been resisting incursions into free speech and press freedom that we identified in the Cybercrime Bill 2017 and the Association one month ago focused our public education and advocacy mandate on protection of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (centre) chats to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi in Parliament.
(Copyright Newsday)

Whatever the outcome of the charge against trade unionist and THA Minority Leader Watson Duke and the charge(s) 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 Trinidad and Tobago should not be left to archaic law, the purpose of which was to protect the status quo by criminalising our heroic forebears. The Act’s anachronism is evident in its 11-page schedule of prohibited publications, among which are numerous trade union periodicals, regional news sources no longer in existence, 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 Trinidad and Tobago has significant co-operative and investment arrangements.

MATT urges the Government to review the Sedition Act with a view to repealing it and calls on the TTPS to account for what can be interpreted as selective application of the law’s provisions. Press freedom and freedom of expression are constitutional rights guaranteed to all people of Trinidad and Tobago.

On Independence Day 2019, MATT renews its mandate as a key advocate for freedom of expression, press freedom and the promotion of independent journalism.

MATT members are invited to a general membership meeting on Saturday 14 September 2019 at 10am at a venue to be announced. The meeting will be twinned with a documentary screening and discussion on online harassment of journalists. Membership renewals will also be conducted.

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About MATT Executive

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago is the authorised representative body for local journalists in all formats.

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