The Sedition Act, unused in the past, is now emerging a vital instrument of the police. What is not clear is whether the T&T Police Service is acting on its volition or is responding to a public complaint. Sat Maharaj made statements which were considered “seditious” and led to a search at the radio station where those comments were made. Court action was required to” force” the TTPS to produce a search warrant which ought to have been presented as a matter of routine. No charge has been made in that matter to date. Yesterday, the Minister of National Security disclosed at the post-Cabinet press conference that at least one charge of sedition would be laid against trade union leader and politician Watson Duke.
A seditious intention is defined in section 3 (1) clauses a to e of the act. Clause c is a catchall definition; “to raise discontent or disaffection amongst inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago.” The critical issue, therefore, is to determine a person's intent.
There are a number of points to be considered.
First, who is the complainant, or are the police acting in their own right? The police service has its hands full dealing with the crime surge, the spiralling murder rate in particular. There is already a severe backlog of cases in the courts, where postponements are the norm due to the non-appearance of police officers. Is it that the police are now patrolling the airwaves as part of an exercise in “total policing” or following a policy of “no broken windows?” If that is the case, surely there are more important areas requiring attention.
Second, was the offence committed in a public broadcasting space? If yes, then this is the province of the Telecommunications Authority (TATT), which has wide powers, not the least of which would be the power to suspend a broadcaster's operations. Given its broad powers, TATT would hardly need a search warrant.
Third, is it appropriate for the announcement to be made by the Minister of National Security? The Minister could give no details of MP Marlene McDonald's arrest or charges which were eventually released by the police. The Police Service is meant to be separate from the Executive branch, lest it be tempted to exceed its power and thus threaten the democratic rights of citizens.
Union leaders and politicians are often given to rhetoric on public platforms, which would not be considered acceptable in rational and considered discourse, especially at election time. Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Law Dean at UWI St Augustine, has cautioned that “sedition can be used as a political tool since it is not amongst our established norms,” George Orwell warned that "threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen." Is this a new police initiative?