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The right to criticise without fear of personal reprisal

Published: 
Sunday, October 26, 2014

In his weekly column, Ralph Maraj chronicled the twists and turns of the alternating support and opposition given to the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway by the UNC and the PNM, depending upon whether they were in Opposition or the Government, and presumably on whether it was politically suitable to take one position or the other. He also catalogued the way the Highway Re-route Movement’s opposition to the highway has developed or shifted over time. 

He pointed out that the Armstrong report itself was critical of the effectiveness of the alternate route proposed by the HRM and that it has now emerged that the section of the highway between Debe and Mon Desir does not pass through the swamp, as the HRM has hitherto claimed, making it unnecessary for the “mountain to come to Mohammed,” the environmental impact of which Peter Minshall so dramatically portrayed in his You Tube presentation.

Whether accurate or not, Mr Maraj’s column is a useful and valid contribution to the debate on the Government’s planned extension of the highway, and HRM’s opposition to it. 

It is criticism which the HRM must endure as a hazard of entry into public debate over government policy. If peeved, its remedy is to respond to debunk Mr Maraj’s arguments. 

In stark contrast, in an op-ed piece, the Attorney General took the opponents of his government’s proposed highway to task, which is his right, but engaged more in personal vilification than in an honest debate over the merits and demerits of the competing arguments. 

Thus, he characterised the supporters of the HRM as the well-to-do, living in ocean-view condominiums, shopping in malls, and eating in restaurants, all “built on land reclaimed from the ocean that damaged marine life, fisheries stock and the ecosystem,” who were silent when mountains were being carved up to provide the landfill for the foundation of the life of luxury they now enjoy, and did not object to the grant of planning approval for the “multi-million-dollar projects” in Diego Martin which contribute to the excessive flooding plaguing the valley. 

He describes them, in other words, as hypocritical Johnnies-come-lately to the environment cause, who from their privileged perches would deny the less-well-off the similar benefits of the march of progress.

If there is any supporter of the HRM who selfishly stood by in silence when mountains were being moved into the sea so that they could construct their lavish homes, but is now opposing similar environmental destruction, he would of course have to suffer the Attorney General’s attack, also in silence.

But on what basis has the Attorney General concluded that HRM supporters are all rich people who live in Bayshore, shop at West Mall and eat at MovieTowne? Did he have his security detail examine their ID cards when they were engaged in their candlelight protest in Nelson Mandela Park? Or did he come to that conclusion on the basis of the way they looked?

And even if any of them live, shop or dine in the West, on what basis does he assume that they were alive, or old enough, or sufficiently conscious, or living there when the land was being reclaimed?

And if any of them was alive or old enough at the time, what evidence does he have that none of them raised their voices in protest when these projects were conceived or being implemented? 

The fact is that environmentalists recently led a sustained protest over plans to reclaim further land in Invaders Bay. 

Did the Attorney General investigate whether any of those protesters are among the supporters of the HRM? 

Surely if they are, his charge of hypocrisy would be far off the mark.

And as I recall, the same body of Invaders Bay protesters was at the same time opposing the smelter plant in Point Fortin, a movement which the AG’s party embraced during the last election, even though the abandonment of the smelter project may have been contrary to the wishes of the residents of Point Fortin for whom the plant might have provided employment. 

The AG’s party, and the AG himself, did not then, as far as I can recall, complain that environmentalists enjoying a cushy existence in the luxurious suburbs of Port-of-Spain were seeking to deprive the not-so-fortunate in Point Fortin of “equality of opportunity in national planning.”

It is the height of irony that the AG quoted the following passage from Matthew against HRM supporters: "How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?"

I want to make my point clear. When any member of the public chooses to venture into the realm of public debate, she should expect her position to be dissected and criticised and cannot complain if as a result her arguments are found wanting. 

David Abdulah and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj must likewise suffer the AG’s charge of political opportunism. This is all part of the cut and thrust of public debate. 

What is not acceptable, particularly from public officials, and more so an AG, is the personal denigration of government detractors, especially when such attacks are obviously based on questionable assumptions. 

People must be made to feel free to express their opinions, however wrongheaded the objects of their attacks might think they are, without fear of ad-hominem disparagement because they are perceived to belong to geographical, social or ethnic constituencies whose support the sitting government considers dispensable.

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