The Bahamas

The Bahamas National Flag

Flag of The Bahamas

By Jakob R. Rodriguez

Home to pink beaches, swimming pigs and generally regarded as the richest country in the Caribbean, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas enjoys many of the same speech and press freedoms that the United States does. The Bahamian constitution provides for freedom of speech and press. The word Gazette is written into the Bahamian constitution nine times and refers to the official news source of governmental affairs for the Bahamian people. Independent media groups in the Bahamas are regarded as active and expressive in a variety of views and face few restrictions with regard to censorship. Though the island chain has enjoyed a free press since the early 1800s, early broadcasting was a government monopoly until 1992. A national radio station was established as a hurricane warning service in on the island chain in the 1930s. And today, the broadcasting corporation of the Bahamas is partly funded by advertising, and heavily subsidized by the public treasury, which remains under tight political control. According to the Bahamas Human Rights Report, “there are 29 private radio stations and countless print and online publications all of which support a multitude of viewpoints (operating on Inagua, Long Island, Exuma, Eleuthera, New Providence, Abaco and Grand Bahama) alongside four private TV stations on New Providence.

 

The Bahamas has been ranked by Freedom House to have a similar ranking to the United States in press freedoms with the same total score of 23/100 and is within one spot of the United States on issues of legal, economic and political environments. The Bahamas also received the distinction of “free” with respect to the freedom of its people and their right to express themselves.

Governmental restrictions on coverage and use of “scare tactics” can be seen as recently as 2015 in which the Bahamian government “did not use libel or slander laws to silence critics but employed threats of prosecution in a way that civil rights groups reported had a chilling effect on free speech,” according to the Bahamas Human Rights Report.

  1. Historical Background

The first people of the Bahamas were Lucayan people believed to have arrived from Cuba, 40,000 of whom were living on the islands when Christopher Columbus set out to explore the New World and landed on San Salvador in 1492. Columbus declared the islands to be shallow water or “baja mar” and thus named the area the Bahamas – the islands of the shallow sea. This branch of the Arawak tribe, documented by Columbus, were mostly sold into slavery or killed by diseases carried into the native community by Columbus and the Europeans. English Puritans arrived in 1649 searching for religious freedom and became the first settlers of the “new land.”  Historically a hot bed for pirate activity throughout the 1600s and the early 1700s, pirates and pillagers ruled the Bahamian seas. The King of England appointed Woodes Rogers as Royal Governor of the islands in 1718 to restore order. Rogers, a former privateer, offered amnesty to all those who surrendered, but hangings and ship sinking to all those who did not. After a brief battle with Rogers’ four battleships, 300 pirates surrendered, and the rest fled. Throughout his tenure as governor, Rodgers would ward off attacks from the Spanish and “return peace to the Caribbean.” During the American colonies’ fight for independence, the Bahamas would become a place of refuge for American loyalists. The loyalists brought with them their slaves and over time, more and more slaves and freed slaves were brought to the island chain. Queen Elizabeth II is technically still the head of state, but as previously mentioned, the Bahamas has been a commonwealth, or an independent country, since July 10, 1973.

Today, the majority of people on the island chain, or 83 percent of about 400,000, identify as black or Afro-Bahamian, 15 percent identify as white, and the other two percent represent other identities such as Asians and Latinos.

Just above Cuba and southeast of Florida, the Bahamas are comprised of 700 islands and more than 2,000 rocks and cays. The island clusters are Bimini, Grand Bahama, Berry islands, New Providence, Abaco, Eluthera, Andros, the Exumas, Cat Island, San Salvador, Rum Cay, Long Island, Ragged Island, Innagua, Acklins and Crooked islands, Mayaguana. Often thought of as the link between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, it has remained a popular tourist destination for people on the east coast of the United States which has a typically favorable exchange rate. Abaco island is known to be the sailing capital of the world, home to amazing wind currents, Harbour island on Eluthera features the picturesque and famed pink beaches which come as a result of shells of the farrow species being crushed by waves and mixed with the sand to form a pale pink color on the beach. The Bahamas have also attracted celebrities, including Pirates of the Caribbean’s Johnny Depp, to build houses and have extended stays on the island chain. The islands are all generally low lying and flat, the highest point being only a small 207-foot-tall hill called Mount Alvernia on Cat island.

  1. Free Speech

Contemporary free speech issues are what plague this island nation the most. Just as the west continues its history of “all speech is free speech” with large scale protests at the University of California Berkley and demonstrations across the nation on international women’s day and the “March For Our Lives” following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.; the Bahamas faced its own issues regarding free speech since 2015 following a divisive election.

In May 2017, the Bahamian election for prime minister involved Perry Christie, a long-time politician of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), against a physician, Hubert Minnis

of the Free National Movement (FNM). 180,000 people registered to vote in 39 constituencies across the country. The polls opened at 8 a.m. on election day, but a polling station on New Providence was forced to open late following concerns about ballots, and some of those waiting left without voting. Voters casted ballots for 39 seats in the House of Assembly, the party which ended with the majority of seats would form the government. The island nation depends upon tourism and the election itself was overshadowed by the delayed opening of $4.2 billion dollar resort called Baha Mar. Critics of Christie say the time has come for him to retire as he was finishing his second non-consecutive term as prime minister. According to Aljazeera, “Christie prompted condemnation earlier in 2017 when he denied corruption accusations by raising his middle finger to reporters.” Minnis won the election in a landslide victory over Christie in a 35-4 parliamentary split.  Ajazeera reported that “allegations of PLP corruption and arrogance dominated the keenly-contested election campaign, with the 73-year old Christie weeks ago earning the ire of the electorate as he defiantly boasted that ‘not even God’ could stop him.”

One specific example of free speech issues that drew a lot of controversy prior to the election was the Bahama Human Rights Association President Fred Smith calling on the government to pass a Human Rights Act and make it an offense to “abuse people hatefully in public,” in 2015. The president’s statements came in response to an anonymous group of individuals in Ku Klux Klan style attire paraded in protest against Smith and conservationist, Louis Bacon during a New Year’s Day Junkanoo parade. The two men felt as if they were being attacked during this protest that targeted them and their political ideologies utilizing symbols related to the KKK and filed an official complaint to the police commissioner who in turn, led an investigation into the group. The status on the investigation into the group was deemed “under investigation or ongoing” as 2015.

In 2006, the Bahamian Plays and Films Control Board banned the film Brokeback Mountain playing in theaters and wide spread initial release and regarded the film as an example of “extreme homosexuality, nudity and profanity.” According to Equaldex, which pays attention to LGBT issues around the world, while being gay may be legal, gay marriage is still unrecognized and is illegal in some contexts. “The board chose to ban it because it shows extreme homosexuality, nudity and profanity, and we feel that it has no value for the Bahamian public,” Chavasse Turnquest-Liriano, liaison officer for the control board, told the Canadian Press.

  • Free Press

The Declaration of Chapultepec was introduced at the Inter American Press Association’s hemisphere conference on free speech held in Chapultepec Mexico in 1944. The declaration included 10 fundamental principles necessary for a free press to perform its role in democracy. In 2002, Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham, became the 23rd head of state in the Americas to support the (?) by signing the document during a special ceremony yesterday in Nassau, capital of the archipelago nation. The prime minister said this is symbolic of the nation’s commitment to a free press and its role within a democracy. The Freedom of Expression Exchange, reported in 2002 however, that the Caribbean had a mixed record of achievement in press freedom, and most notably with free expression. The association of Caribbean Media Workers reported that there was “a growing incidence of self-censorship and imposition of journalistic values in newsrooms.”

Press in the Bahamas has been free for a long time but bound by ethical standards only recently. In 2014, the Bahamas Press Club adopted an ethics code in an effort to increase professionalism and promote good reporting. The Ethics standard mirrors the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States. According to the Bahamas weekly, BPC members are expected to do the following:

“Seek truth and report it. the media should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Minimize harm. ethical members of the media are to treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Act independently. the media should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. Be accountable. Members of the media are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.” In addition, the members of the BPC are expected to avoid suppressing vital information because of self-censorship, writing misleading headlines and information just to attract readers in the digital age.

Earlier in 2017, the Bahamian parliament enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in order to increase transparency, accountability, and public participation in government decision making by granting the public access to information about the government. A practice seemingly routine in the United States, the Act attempts to hold a balance between public access and interest and hold certain information confidential. In order to access these records, a citizen would need only to write to the office or agency which they were kept and provide enough information about the record to allow the authorities to locate it. The Act requires authorities deliver a response within 30 days, the authorities need not to know what the petitioner would need a record. The fight now is to make the FOI act akin to the US, in which authorities are allowed 10 days for a response.

  1. Critical Comparison

 Comparing the Bahamas to the United States is tricky because the Bahamas has not existed as an independent nation for as long as the United States and relies heavily upon the United States and U.S. relations for a large percentage of its economy in tourism. Freedoms of press and speech in the Bahamas, in essence, seem to mirror the United States, if there is a free speech issue in the United States, one will likely follow in the Bahamas. One area in which they differ is flag desecration as a matter of symbolic free speech. In Texas v. Johnson, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag as a means of protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. He was sentenced to one year in jail and assessed a $2,000 fine. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that Johnson’s burning of a flag was protected expressive conduct and thus protected by the First Amendment. You need a sentence here to explain why they ruled that this is protected by the First Amendment.

The Bahamas is no stranger to flag controversy; in 2004, the Bahamas government attempted to avoid confusion with various reproductions of the national flag that they issued a notice about its defacement and believes that the defacement resulted was, in large part, due to ignorance of the law. The regulation noted that, “if an individual mutilates, cuts, tears, burns or defaces the flag by writing, printing, or stamping; as well as verbally insulting the National Flag, he or she is guilty of an offence.” In 2014, police responded to three people of Haitian descent who were reportedly involved with insulting the national flag. The three were charged with insulting the national flag by the Magistrate’s Court of Abaco in 2014. Two of the individuals pleaded guilty and were fined $500 or three months in prison each. One of the individuals had no status in the Bahamas and was deported to Haiti. Because of the broad range of interpretation of the statute set for defacement of a flag and the language barrier that existed with the Hattians, it’s unclear exactly what happened, but the three individuals were penalized because the Magistrate’s courts decided that the flag defacement was not politically driven or expressive conduct.

  1. Conclusion

Though the two nations appear to go down the same path in a lot of ways regarding free speech and free press, it would appear that U.S. citizens still enjoy greater freedom of speech as compared to citizens of the Bahamas. Because of the recent adoption of journalistic standards and ethics, the Bahamas may have had these freedoms for over 50 years, but citizens and journalists in the Bahamas continue to push what it meant to have freedom of speech and freedom of the press, just as the United States does. 

  1. Citations

 “Award Winning Film Banned in The Bahamas.” Award Winning Film Banned in The Bahamas – Bahamas News Archive Top Stories, www.bahamasb2b.com/news/wmview.php?ArtID=7432.

“Bahamas.” Annual Survey of Political Rights & Civil Liberties: 2001-2002 – Freedom in the World, Jan. 2002, p. 83. Edo, EBSCOhost

“Bahamas.” Bahamas | Freedom House, 16 Jan. 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/Bahamas.

“NEW CARIBBEAN ASSOCIATION URGES GOVERNMENTS TO DEFEND FREE EXPRESSION.” IFEX, 7 May 2002, ifex.org/2002/05/07/new_caribbean_association_urges/.

“Officials Warn Against Defacing Flag.” Officials Warn Against Defacing Flag – Bahamas News Archive Top Stories, www.bahamasb2b.com/news/wmview.php?ArtID=3769.

“Prime Minister Endorses Declaration of Chapultepec.” IFEX, www.ifex.org/bahamas/2002/05/01/prime_minister_endorses_declaration/.

“The Tribune.” Two Haitians Fined and One Deported for Insulting the Bahamian Flag, www.tribune242.com/news/2014/jul/31/two-haitians-fined-and-one-deported-insulting-baha/.

Bahamas Media Profile . 2015, www.bing.com/cr?IG=58CF3E4CC57645249D718AD19B79D2D9&CID=13696CE9F67D641E2D326728F7D265C2&rd=1&h=0CGpwOPu_D9R5_FsZYKa-rOX1tmdlkvIIDkN6_lD2dI&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fbahamasmedia.com%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2f2010%2f10%2fBahamasMediaProfile.pdf&p=DevEx,5064.1.

BPC. “Code of Ethics for BPC.” Bahamas Press Club Adopts Code of Ethics, 7 Apr. 2016, www.thebahamasweekly.com/publish/local/Bahamas_Press_Club_adopts_Code_of_Ethics47578.shtml.

CIA World Fact Book. vol. 53, CIA World Fact Book, 2016, p. 59, CIA World Fact Book

Evans, F. C., and R. N. Young. The Bahamas. Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1976., 1976.

Guardian, The Nassau. “Bahamas Press Club, Save The Bays Unite to Urge Freedom of Information.” The Nassau Guardian, 22 Feb. 2016, thenassauguardian.com/2016/02/22/bahamas-press-club-save-the-bays-unite-to-urge-freedom-of-information/.

Jazeera, Al. “Bahamas Votes in Closely-Contested General Election.” Bahamas News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 10 May 2017, www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/bahamas-votes-closely-contested-general-election-170510211427846.html.

Johnson, Howard. The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude, 1783-1933. Gainesville : University Press of Florida, c1996., 1996.

Maycock, Denise. “The Tribune.” Two Haitians Fined and One Deported for Insulting the Bahamian Flag, 31 July 2014, www.tribune242.com/news/2014/jul/31/two-haitians-fined-and-one-deported-insulting-baha/.

Nunez, Paco. “Bahamas’ Ban on Brokeback Mountain Draws Protests, Claims of Censorship .” Bahamas’ Ban on Brokeback Mountain Draws Protests, Claims of Censorship , 30 Mar. 2006, eds.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.txstate.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=7eb5cdc5-6794-468f-a7df-295b5eede712%40sessionmgr4008&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=MYO318886955506&db=n5h.

Savaella , Nico. “The Tribune.” KKK Style Protest at Junkanoo Parade a ‘National Disgrace’ Says Smith, 3 Jan. 2015, www.tribune242.com/news/2015/jan/03/kkk-style-protest-junkanoo-parade-national-disgrac/.

The Bahamas Human Rights Report . 2015, www.bing.com/cr?IG=4AA4DA681FC54E2781AD1033446DC16F&CID=189C525CD3BB603E1294599DD2146123&rd=1&h=rMgXDeUzL2BbceQ0u4V4XhChTZTAHmhpbXj0cHxtJBU&v=1&r=https%3a%2f%2fwww.state.gov%2fdocuments%2forganization%2f253199.pdf&p=DevEx,5124.1.

The Declaration of Chapultapec. Inter-American Press Association, www.bing.com/cr?IG=B970FDA3729646169E9E907FB4A00E1B&CID=10B3796E7B9360CE073072AF7A3C6133&rd=1&h=hQzZMVcUcpdtQoUDhlm6-z-AscMnhnbDyA5JkSwRB80&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fmedia.sipiapa.org%2fadjuntos%2f185%2fdocumentos%2f001%2f795%2f0001795833.pdf&p=DevEx,5107.1.

Whitten-Woodring, Jenifer, and Douglas A. Van Belle. Historical Guide to World Media Freedom: A Country-by-Country Analysis. CQ Press, 2014.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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