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HEAT IN THE HOUSE

By Andre Bagoo Saturday, January 25 2014

click on pic to zoom in

THERE was heat in the House of Representatives yesterday as Government and Opposition MPs traded blows over who had the better record when it came to preserving freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Things became so heated during debate of the Libel and Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2013 that 11 Opposition MPs at one stage ironically voted to silence the Caroni East MP Dr Tim Gopeesingh just as he was criticising the PNM for having a poor record on freedom of expression.

Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, Opposition Whip Marlene Mc Donald and Laventille East/Morvant MP Donna Cox rose a total of eight times, objecting during Gopeesingh’s one hour and 15 minute speech, citing rules against irrelevance and imputing improper motives.

At another stage, Deputy Speaker Nela Khan had to direct Diego Martin North/East MP Colm Imbert to sit down when he attempted to speak at the same time as the Government Whip Dr Roodal Moonilal. She also directed Rowley to sit at another stage.

Gopeesingh critcised the PNM for cutting advertising in Newsday over a newspaper column critical of the former PNM Prime Minister Patrick Manning, hauling a reporter and an editor from the same paper to a Parliament committee in an attempt to unearth sources of a story and recommending a ban on the paper.

In turn, Rowley knocked the UNC on its own record on the free press, citing the attempts to regulate the press after a fallout over a newspaper headline; and the failure to renew a television journalist’s work permit.

Gopeesingh, in calling upon MPs to vote in favour of the bill – which seeks to decriminalise one offence of publishing malacious libel – said the move contrasted sharply with practices of previous PNM administrations.

He said in 1986 then PNM Prime Minister George Chambers (now deceased) incited an attack on members of the media working at TTT at a rally. He said media workers were pelted with snow-cones.

Gopeesingh also referred to former PNM Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s attack on two journalists after they visited the Heights of Guanapo construction site for a church that was being built there with ties to his purported spiritual adviser called Juliana Pena.

Gopeesingh also noted Manning once called on supporters to defend the PNM, stating he would give them “ammunition” and had once insisted that the role of the media was to educate and inform.

“That is not the example you are seeing here being set by this Government,” Gopeesingh said.

Manning, now the San Fernando East MP, was not in the chamber during yesterday’s debate. No announcement of a leave of absence was made in relation to him by the Deputy Speaker Nela Khan.

Gopeesingh was further in the process of criticising, “the PNM’s approach to protesters”, citing the arrest of David Abdulah at an anti-tax rally when PNM MP s became hot under the collar.

Mc Donald rose, citing Standing Order 36 (1) which states a speech must be relevant to the debate at hand.

“What is the relevance of this to what we are dealing with here?” she said.

The Deputy Speaker ruled, “Overruled. Member for Caroni East, you may continue.” “You have your time to respond, I am speaking now,” Gopeesingh told Mc Donald.

Rowley, in cross-talk, said, “this is irrelevant! He is wasting our time!” Khan called upon Rowley to be silent.

“He is wasting our time!” Rowley replied. “Standing Order 36 (1). The arrest of individuals is irrelevant to the matters before this house.” Khan called on Gopeesingh to clarify the link between the arrest of a protester and a bill to decriminalise publication of malicious libel.

Gopeesingh said, “We are speaking of press freedoms and freedom of expression and freedom of association.

We are speaking about the intimidatory tactics used by the previous administration that was very much against the media.” PNM Port-of-Spain North/St Ann’s West MP Patricia Mc Intosh cried out, “But David Abdulah was not a journalist!” “They don’t want to hear the truth!” Gopeesingh retorted. PNM Diego Martin Central MP Amery Browne retorted, “If you call that the truth!” Gopeesingh then attempted to refer to the 2003 arrest of former UNC MPs Manohar Ramsaran and Dr Hamza Rafeeq for protesting without permits. Rowley objected.

“The member is being wholly irrelevant, we are supposed to be speaking here about criminal libel,” said Rowley, the Diego Martin West MP.

“Overruled. You may continue,” Khan ruled. Gopeesingh continued saying the arrests were examples of what happened to persons who expressed dissenting views under the PNM. But there was yet another objection.

“Madam Deputy Speaker, I am really having some problems now,” said Opposition Whip Marlene Mc Donald. “I am really having some problems understanding what you are saying and its relevance.” Gopeesingh replied, “I am linking it to the issue of world press freedom.” But the Caroni East MP’s speaking time then expired. The Acting Government Whip Anil Roberts then moved the standard motion for the time to be extended for a further 30 minutes. Government MPs present in the chamber cried yes, while all the PNM MP s cried no, with a division being called for.

In the vote, 11 PNM MPs voted to silence Gopeesingh including: Mc Donald, Rowley, Cox, Hypolite, Mc Intosh (who cried out “No - irrelevant!”); Imbert; La Brea MP Fitzgerald Jeffrey; Browne; St Ann’s East MP Joanne Thomas; Arouca/ Maloney MP Alicia Hospedales (“No, because of irrelevance!”) and Point Fortin MP Paula Gopee-Scoon. St Joseph MP Terrence Deyalsingh missed the vote.

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