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Guyana’s fragile political environment was dealt another severe blow with the recent arrest of Sherod Duncan.
He is being investigated for breach of the Cybercrime Act after an employee at GECOM complained to the police that the AFC Member of Parliament had used derogatory language to describe him. Mr. Duncan is host of a popular Facebook programme, “In the Ring,” which has long been targeted by the PPP and the government as a source of hate and hostility directed at the administration. At first glance, one may ask what this has to do with the government. Well, the gentleman making the accusation against Duncan was long suspected by the political opposition of being a PPP operative at GECOM. During the recount of the votes in the wake of the March 3, 2020 election, APNU+AFC members had complained of him meeting clandestinely with PPP members.
Whatever the political affiliations of the accuser and the accused, this recent arrest continues a dangerous trend that has taken life since the PPP returned to government. In what is a clear campaign of witch hunt, the administration has used the police to harass and prosecute its perceived and real political opponents. It began with GECOM staff and quickly extended to members and supporters of the APNU+AFC. The approach seems to be one in which the police with or without evidence arrests citizens with the objective of publicly embarrassing them and subjecting them and their families to much discomfort. This is a frightening development that is the hallmark of a Police State and an authoritarian regime. This publication urges those in charge of the police force to pushback against this misuse of an institution that is charged with protecting the citizenry.
In the case of Duncan, his arrest is a clear violation of the right to free speech. Of course, free speech has to be balanced against responsible speech—one’s freedom of expression must not violate the freedom of another individual. Mr. Duncan allegedly used the words “Jagabats” and “Trench Crappo” (popular Guyanese slangs) to describe the accuser. With all due respect to those who abhor nicknames, what have we descended to in Guyana when the police with all the crimes and other safety challenges in our country can find the time to go after citizens for such pettiness? Can somebody really make the case that the use of those two terms violate the Cyber Crime Act? Surely, we cannot be a serious country.
But that is precisely the point—the arrest and possible prosecution are the mask for the government’s crusade to stamp out the right to dissent. The government and its mouthpieces have concluded that their biggest threat comes from these Facebook “talk shows.” There is no doubt that Duncan’s show and the others have since the election attracted a large following of mainly opposition supporters who view them as sources of information, criticism and analysis of the government’s performance and as platforms of opposition advocacy.
While there is the expected “red meat” for the viewers, these shows are generally very informative—they have become Guyana’s Cable TV. Their popularity has partly stemmed from the mainstream media’s initial post-election embargo on opposition opinion. It is this break in the government’s monopoly of media that irks those in power. But in a free society, governments must expect criticisms and the State has the responsibility to protect citizens’ right to criticise the government. The Cyber Crimes Act is being abused by this government.
We therefore alert the country that the convergence of political policing, violation of the right to free speech and the snuffing out of the right to dissent represents another new low for our country. For its part, the government seems unbothered. Therein lies the greatest challenge—such attitude from the powerful will ultimately drive the powerless to frustration. Guyana deserves better governance, and its citizens are entitled to protection of their Human Rights.