Don't shoot the messenger - deal with the problem!

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 7            February 15, 2001

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A cancer that would normally be cut out in any free society has been festering and spreading in Belize at an alarming rate. This cancer is eating away at the right of freedom of expression and the right of free speech. Citizens are being persecuted at an intolerable rate for giving their opinions or speaking out about inefficiencies, lack of service or corruption in businesses, government and utility companies. In a supposed "free country" freedom of speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed rights which individuals are not punished for exercising. If this is not the case, Belize is neither free nor do its citizens have any rights to express themselves; there are daily examples of this happening.   

   The recent firing of Kimo Jolly, an extremely qualified Environmental Science teacher at Sacred Heart Junior College in San Ignacio, is yet another slap in the face to freedom of expression and freedom of speech to all Belizeans. Mr. Jolly's termination came after he held an open forum for students, teachers and the mayors of San Ignacio and Benque Viejo. The purpose of the forum was to discuss the sale and privatization of WASA to a foreign company. This open and transparent discussion resulted in the students suggesting a resolution and subsequently submitting this resolution to the Prime Minister the following day.

    Mr. Jolly is only one of many victims in this instance. The students, who were entering their final semester of a two-year course taught by Mr. Jolly, are left without a teacher, and currently, their future is uncertain. Mr. Jolly's dismissal letter was given to him with no official explanation for his termination. Principal Chris Aird, who gave Jolly the letter, told him unofficially, that he had put the school in jeopardy too many times. Mr. Aird added that when he (Mr. Jolly) advocated against the Chalillo Dam, the government threatened to close the school down.

    It is a shame that educating our youths, the future leaders of tomorrow, about issues facing our country has become a punishable offense. In a letter of support for Mr. Jolly, sent to the Amandala newspaper, the students stated that, the board of Governors had "victimized them-freedom of speech has no value-we have elected a bunch of dictators to tell us what to do and when to do it-we have no future-no voice". Is this the message we want programmed into our youths of today? Don't get involved with issues affecting your country-your opinion and views are irrelevant and unwanted. Or was this a way to teach them a lesson on how a dictatorship operates as opposed to how a democracy operates?

    The victimization of people expressing their opinions is unlimited and crosses all lines. Belize Electricity Limited's own hydro-engineer was dismissed for openly expressing his opinions concerning the feasibility of Mollejon and Chalillo Dams. Independent countrywide and worldwide studies, and reports on the effects, costs, benefits, viable options and environmental damage of the dam fell on deaf ears. Constructive dialogue was not, and is still not, the order of the day. It seems the only rationale for this project is to benefit a few at the expense of many, or they would allow the facts to determine the project's fate.

    As one of the only true independently owned and operated newspapers in Belize, the San Pedro Sun owes no favors to private enterprises or political parties; we have no puppet-master pulling our strings. Having the number one Internet site on Ambergris Caye, and the largest amount of foreign subscribers of any newspaper in Belize, one of our goals is to promote Ambergris Caye and Belize as a fun place for tourists planning a vacation to. Another goal is to give the people a voice when they feel something is not right and can get no satisfaction through the proper channels. We also believe that helping to inform people by printing factual, accurate and unbiased information, we will aid them in making more knowledgeable opinions concerning matters facing the country. Because of this belief, the San Pedro Sun easily identifies with individuals whose right to free speech has been threatened or when they have unjustly been victimized for exercising their rights. We have experienced this many times before and expect to many times in the future. Last year, an editor of this newspaper was publicly threatened by a minister of government and told "don't f**k with me or you will suffer the consequences". This threat came as a result of our accurate, factual articles published, and editorials that suggested alternative sites that would not destroy the environment or condemn the occupants to eventual slum conditions in the San Mateo Phase II subdivision. Just recently, a local company pulled their advertising from the San Pedro Sun because we published an Open Forum letter from a private citizen, that was not libelous or slanderous, but which did not show them in a "shining light". All are failed attempts to erode freedom of speech and freedom of expression in this newspaper.

    The reason for citing the above examples is not to whine, complain or criticize, but to show that the threats to freedom of expression and speech are real in this country. They take many shapes and forms, they happen countrywide, at all levels and no one is immune. There is one thing all of these examples have in common; an attempt to try and silence the messenger instead of dealing with the issues and points raised.

    Do not think that these instances can happen only to someone else. No matter who is today's victim, if one person is denied their right to freedom of expression or speech, we all, as individuals and as a country, suffer. By remaining silent and not speaking out against these injustices, we are in fact, helping to topple the first domino that will stop only when freedom of speech is no longer a right, but a privilege that only a select few can exercise.

    The San Pedro Sun is dedicated to the preservation of freedom of the press and even more dedicated to an individual's right to freedom of speech and expression. The San Pedro Sun is first and foremost the people's newspaper. We will not compromise our reader's trust when they write a letter to the editor. It is not our official or unofficial policy to call the agency, organization or business that the letter addresses, to ask them if it is OK with them to print the letter in order to gain favored status. We will not be intimidated by threats and we will not remain silent for the promise of financial gain. The San Pedro Sun will not let a price tag be put on its integrity.

    We must all unite as one and stand strong against the forces that seek to punish those who speak out or have opposing opinions. We must constantly remind them that, this is in fact a democratic society, and we will not sit idly by while our rights are cast aside. It is time for all citizens to "get up, stand up". While we cannot always agree with each other, we should be able to agree that we should be allowed to disagree. If you are not willing to work towards a solution, you unknowingly become part of the problem. It is time to publicly expose those who seek to suppress our rights. "A nation of sheep begets a government of wolves" (Edward R. Murrow).
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