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Point and Counter-Point: Freedom and the people who run our society

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Posted: Monday, June 21, 2021. 10:24 am CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: One of the things I admire most about the two Fathers of Our Nation, the late Honourable George Cadle Price and the late Honourable Philip S. W. Goldson, was their commitment to, and what they fought for all their political lives, the creation of a Belize as a Free Society.  They were both committed to the United Nations 1948 declaration of Human Rights which states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.  This includes information about our Political Ecosystem, our Civil Liberties, Associational and Organizational Rights, the Rule of Law, and our Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights.  When I looked at the levels of freedom in 2020 in nine societies around the world and compared them to that of Belize’s level of freedom, Belize ranked 4th with 86 out of a hundred points.  The nine countries that Belize’s freedom level was compared to included Barbados that ranked 1st with 95 points, Germany 2nd with 94, the UK 3rd with 93, Belize 4th with 86, the USA 5th with 83, Trinidad & Tobago 6th with 82, Jamaica 7th with 78, Mexico 8th with 61 points, Singapore 9th with 50 points, and Nigeria, ranked 10th with 45 points. 

Some recent events, however, have raised three questions in my mind about Belize’s capacity to continue to sustain this relatively high level of freedom for its Citizens.  These questions include: to what extent is Belize’s relatively high levels of freedom as a society being exposed to new threats?  Which sectors of the society seems most vulnerable? And what/who are the sources of that vulnerability?   In short, my answer to these questions is that though Belize as a society has enjoyed a high level of freedom since Independence in 1981, recently those freedoms are being subjected to some new threats, especially our Civil liberties, the Rule of Law, and our Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights, by the people who run this society – our corporate and political elites.  Based on criteria generated by Freedom House, an organization that uses these criteria to judge the level of freedom in countries around the world, in this essay I try to show why continuing to try and maintain the country’s high levels of freedom is so very important to its long-term sustainability.

Why is freedom, including freedom of the press, important?  Freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Freedom, especially freedom of the press, helps to maintain the balance of power in government.  It is also important for the smooth functioning of our democracy, since it is through having access to this freedom that our people can become more socially aware of happenings in the country and in the world.  A free people have the power to criticize, or challenge, the government without fear of surveillance or retribution.  For example, when Freedom House investigated if there was a free and independent media in Belize in 2020, they found that though the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, which includes justifiable exceptions for interests such as national security, public order and morality, generally, reporting by the press do cover a wide range of view-points in practice, but that despite that “journalists still sometimes face threats, physical harassment, or assault in the course of their work”. 

Situations like these can be exacerbated by the narcissistic remarks of some of leaders.  For example, recently, the former Attorney General, the Honourable Michael Peyrefitte, speaking as Chairman of the UDP Party, seems to be trying to make the work of journalist even more difficult, and journalist less free, when he said that he was concerned about the freedom the Police Department had with sharing information with the public about criminal activity in the country. Peyrefitte claims that the police seem to be providing “too much information to the public that may be compromising the successful prosecution of criminals”.  Almost immediately after this comment by Mr Peyrefitte, the Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, announced that he will no longer be directly involved in these weekly Police press briefings, which he said will from now on be handled by his newly appointed Communications Director.  If trends like these continue the country’s Freedom Ratings could begin to face an existential threat.

Though our Political Rights and the Organizational and Associational Rights are currently fairly well firewalled, our Civil Liberties, Personal Autonomy, Individual Rights and the Rule of Law needs some ‘sure-ing up’ if we will continue to enjoy this level of freedom the country seem to be enjoying since our Independence in 1981.  Various segments of the population such as ethnic, religious, gender and the LGBT groupings, still do not have full political rights.  Our Maya and Women population are still under-represented in Parliament.  Though the Council of Churches nominate a Senator to the Senate, the Council consists of only Christian faith-based organizations, so our Muslim and Rastafarian populations are still not represented in that selection.  Furthermore, our Judicial System, that oversees the rule of law in the country, is still not fully independent.  The Freedom House 2020 report had this to say about the latter: “Belize’s judiciary is generally independent, despite lacking resources and periodic attempts by political and business interest to interfere with its composition.  In a long-running dispute, a group of companies controlled by business man Michael Ashcroft have attempted to have Samuel Awich removed as a judge on the Court of Appeal, Belize’s highest judicial body.”      

These challenges notwithstanding, the population of Belize continues to enjoy a very high level of freedom.  Of the ten countries compared in this brief essay, Belize was right up there with some of the most developed countries in the region and the world including Barbados, Germany and the UK.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Belize at 86 points ranked higher than the USA at 83 points on the Freedom House Freedom criteria and scale in 2020.  Belize is a much freer country than countries like Mexico (61), Singapore (50) and Nigeria (45).  To keep it that way will require constant surveillance by all of us whose interests is to see Belize grow and develop in sustainable ways.  One way of doing that is to share your views on Breaking Belize News (BBN) through the Point and Counter-Point column.                 

Dr. Dorian Barrow is an educator with a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.

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