Get a thicker skin, human rights body tells lawmakers

The Human Rights Commission has advised politicians who are sensitive to criticism to think twice before entering politics.

It also recommended that journalists should not trivialise or denigrate the parliamentary process.

The remarks came in the conclusion of the Commission’s recently released report on freedom of expression versus parliamentary privilege. The report was prompted by members of the Legislative Assembly’s reaction to a story and editorial published in the Caymanian Compass in December 2010.

The Commission’ report made no specific mention of the incident in which legislators voted to ask the Attorney General Samuel Bulgin to prosecute the Caymanian Compass and one of its reporters for the story and editorial relating to behind-closed-doors sub-committee meetings about a review of the Freedom of Information Law, but instead said citizens of the Cayman Islands would “benefit from an understanding of … freedom of expression as it relates to parliamentary privilege”.

In its report, the Human Rights Commission wrote: “Parliamentarians should, as individuals who volunteer to put themselves in the public domain, accept that the media’s coverage may include disagreement, criticism and a degree of cynicism. Persons who are particularly sensitive to criticism and may find such comments too intrusive should perhaps think twice before entering the public arena of politics.”
The five-member Commission also said the public had the right to expect the media to provide balanced coverage “without trivialising or denigrating the parliamentary process”.

“This is how proper balance can be maintained between freedom of expression (particularly freedom of the press) and the long standing right and privilege of the Legislative Assembly to govern its own proceedings,” the report said.

The Human Rights Commission supported a call by Education Minister Rolston Anglin for the Legislative Assembly to produce and release a pamphlet to inform the public of their duties and of parliamentary privileges and said it was disappointed this had not yet been done.

“The speaker mentioned in that same Hansard report [of December 2010] that copies of the Legislative Assembly (Immunities, Powers and Privileges) Law (1999 Revision) are readily available, but in the opinion of HRC that is no substitute for a pamphlet in plain ordinary language easily understood by all,” the report stated.

The report pointed out that freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which comes into force in November. In the meantime, freedom of expression is protected in the Cayman Islands under the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, that freedom may be subject to certain restrictions, for example, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety; to prevent disorder or crime; to protect health and morals; to protect the reputation or rights of others; to prevent the disclosure of confidential information; or to maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary, according to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Parliamentary privilege, which means that no civil or criminal proceedings may be brought against any member of the Legislative Assembly for anything they say or write in the assembly, is outlined in the Legislative Assembly (Immunities, Powers and Privileges) Law (1999 Revision), and backed by Section 82 of the Constitution.

Within its report, the Human Rights Commission asked: “Can government interfere with right to freedom of expression?” and answered its own question with “The right to freedom of expression is a limited right with qualifications”, pointing out that there are instances in which the government has the ability to restrict the right of any resident of the Cayman Islands.

The Legislative Assembly (Immunities, Powers and Privileges) Law states that it is an offence to publish a statement that falsely or scandalously defames the Legislative Assembly or any committee or which reflects on the character of the Speaker of the House or chairman of a committee in the discharge of his or her duty; publishes any writings that contains a gross, wilful or scandalous misrepresentation of the assembly’s or a committee’s proceedings; or publishes any writing containing false or scandalous libel on a member.

Prosecution under the law can only be done with the written sanction of the attorney general.

Despite the passing of a motion supported by the majority of the members of the Legislative Assembly in December 2010 to request the attorney general to prosecute the Compass and its reporter, Mr. Bulgin declined to do so.

No legal authority has ever claimed the report or editorial published in the Compass on 9 December. 2010, rose to the level of gross, wilful or scandalous misrepresentation of parliamentary or committee proceedings.

The motion was subsequently described as “chilling” by a diverse group of 19 civil society organisations that wrote a joint letter to the Speaker of the House objecting to the actions of the House and calling on Speaker Mary Lawrence to repeal the motion.

The Human Rights Commission, established in early 2010, is chaired by former attorney general Richard Coles and includes former Human Rights Committee chairperson Sara Collins, Reverend Nicholas Sykes, Campbell’s managing partner Alistair Walters, and Cathy Frazier.

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