Fundamental rights, freedoms and priorities

Man in handcuffs
Man in handcuffs (Photo credit: Kindel Media)

The sentiment shared by many Jamaicans is that “Jamaica is not a real place,” and they see the country as a continuous joke, dubbing it the biggest ‘patty shop’ on social media. Every week another event sparks the ‘patty shop’ debate. This past week was no different.

Shaquille Higgins, a young man from St Ann, trended on social media after a video of him was circulated on the respective platforms. In this video, Shaquille was said to be ‘dissing’ the prime minister, The Most Honourable Andrew Holness, who earlier that day in a press conference, outlined the new COVID-19 measures. Following this video, two others surfaced, one in which Shaquille was videoed by the cops who had shown up at his house, took him out of his bed, and told him to get dressed. The second, showed Shaquille at the police station, being demanded to apologize to the prime minister, and being ridiculed in the process.

These events resulted in public outrage on social media and prompted releases by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). The first release claimed that the statements made by Higgins were calumnious, a term that insinuates that the statements were false and defamatory. However, from the perspective of a right-thinking citizen, the statements made by Shaquille would in no way diminish the prime minister’s character.

Additionally, it noted that Shaquille was taken into custody as a suspect in a larceny case. If so, why was he forced to apologize for an act that had nothing to do with the suspicions of the police?

The actions of the police officers have sparked many conversations surrounding the integrity of the JCF and where their priorities lie. Since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, a total of three men have been arrested for apparently disrespecting the prime minister of Jamaica through the use of expletives and derogatory Jamaican phrases.

While I am aware that the use of indecent language is punishable under Jamaican law, where do we draw the line as it relates to the freedom of expression? And, at what point do we examine the hypocrisy that exists?

It is my opinion that laws such as that prohibiting the use of indecent language are outdated, and while society teaches us to refrain from the use of certain terms, is that enough to take away someone’s right to freedom? The law prohibits the use of indecent language in a public space. The amendment, however, does not make provisions for broadcast and technology media.

Videos circulate on social media every day with the use of indecent language, yet no one is held or taken into custody. Situations like this generate suspicion because it seems as though the law is enforced only when the insults are directed at the prime minister.

Not only is it questionable, but it is ironic. The Honourable Portia Simpson-Miller in her years as prime minister and president of the People’s National Party, arguably, faced a myriad of criticisms that were unbecoming. While no video trended then as they do now, the defamation she endured was enough to imprison the perpetrators. Yet, no one was ever taken into custody.

Despite individuals arguing that the freedom to express one’s self is being breached, there are those who purport that the police were within their rights to undertake the actions they did, in upholding the law of the land and ensuring that the name of the prime minister remained free of criticism. But I beg to ask, in which democracy is an appointed government official free of criticism? Shaquille’s video surfaced as a criticism of the new COVID-19 measures implemented by the government, and despite his use of unfavorable terms, it was a criticism, nonetheless.

Unlike the cases before it, Shaquille’s case presents a cause célèbre, which should be used as an opportunity to review colonial and twentieth-century laws and evaluate how they may be disadvantageous to those who fall in the lower socioeconomic echelons of society. Additionally, with the change in the political economy and the continued promotion of human rights, we should ensure that such prohibitions do not hinder an individual’s freedoms and innate rights, especially in a democratic system.

Yanique Mendez has a B.Sc. in Political Science from The University of the West Indies and was recently appointed to the National Youth Advisory Council of Jamaica.

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