Opinion: Election season in full swing

POSTED: 07/30/14 7:25 PM

Are we surprised? Not at all. The United People’s party, apparently unable to read the text of a simple permit, has decided that it is not violating campaign rules. This is why party-leader Theo Heyliger still smiles at prospective voters from roundabouts and why green flags are still flying at bridges.

It is of course true that the general permit Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson issued came just two days before postulation day. A bit late, that’s true, but better late than never.

The conditions of this permit were simple and clear: no campaign material at bridges and roundabouts or on street furniture like traffic signs and (while not mentioned specifically in the permit) lampposts.

You don’t need such conditions six months in advance, but apparently, the UP disagrees. Party-leader Heyliger declared the rules an infringement on the freedom of expression. That does not change the fact that the UP went against the rules the justice minister established. That the UP disagrees with the terms stipulated in this permit is clear. It is also clear that the minister after consulting with Police Chief Peter de Witte eased the conditions by declaring that only campaign material from roundabouts had to be removed – or moved elsewhere.

In itself, it is embarrassing that a minister has to withdraw conditions from a freshly issued permit so quickly. At the same time, it is a sign of flexibility that ought to be appreciated – even though the average citizen will remain apoplectic for a long time about these moves.

What is the value of a permit issued by the justice ministry these days, if forms of protest – or massive violations – are enough to trigger a change of course?

Heyliger’s argument that the permit conditions infringe on the freedom of expression is however nonsensical. There is no measure in the permit that curbs freedom of speech.

An interesting aspect however is the minister’s intention to (potentially) tape speeches at political rallies to determine whether these speeches remain within the rules for freedom of speech.

While this is, again, not something that limits politicians in any way – they are after all free to say what they want – it is in some circles perceived as an attempt to impose a form of self-censorship on candidates.

St. Maarten is not America, or Europe, but in most countries there is always a microphone around when a politician opens his mouth. Everything is recorded in this electronic age, so why should this be a problem in St. Maarten?

The difference is of course that the intention to (potentially) tape speeches at political rallies comes from the justice ministry and that could indeed be one step too far.

Why? Because this smells of government control over free speech. Next thing you know, there is a censor in the offices of local newspapers to control the content of tomorrow’s issue.

Sure, politicians could say things that incite hatred – just listen to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. There are however ways to deal with such situations. Complaints about infringements on the right to free speech (in the sense of someone overstepping the boundaries of that freedom) should not come from any government but they should come from the individual or the group that feels offended by certain statements.

From this perspective, there is therefore not a valid reason to tape any speeches at political rallies. Even if the ministry decided to send someone on the road with electronic eavesdropping devices, this still does not amount to an infringement on the freedom of speech.

That leaves the argument that the minister’s rules are inspired by suggestions from the Democratic Party. True or false, does that really matter?

The one detail that seems awkward in this whole story is about roundabouts and lampposts. The UP has its billboards at roundabouts, the DP does not. The DP however has its banners on lampposts, something Heyliger pointed out without adding that practically every lamppost on the island is flying a green UP-flag.

To sum it up: the election season is in full swing.

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