Defending Rights Bahamas performance
I write in response to “Dangerous and reckless”, a recent Op-Ed, the gist of which was that during the May 10 hearing before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, non-profit Rights Bahamas painted a wildly inaccurate picture of how migrants are treated in this country. Without seeking to discourage a fellow journalist, I’d like to offer a few observations which, though they might come across as a bit harsh, are really intended to be helpful in the spirit of constructive criticism.
The first point concerns the need to be properly informed. The writer’s characterization of Rights Bahamas’ presentation as “lacking in content, context and depth” suggests a basic ignorance of the commission’s procedures for such a hearing. The presentations themselves are never the substance of a petitioner’s submissions, and are only intended to provide a short introduction and overview.
A host of supporting documents and evidence, giving the full details and context, were presented to the commission well ahead of time as per the rules. The government’s official respondent, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson, followed the very same procedures, yet the lack of “content, context and depth” behind his assertions – that all the issues at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre have been resolved, etc. – went completely unquestioned by the writer.
This points to the second issue with the article: a pervasive lack of balance and objectivity. As far as I can see, zero effort was made to either 1. obtain firsthand accounts of the abuses alleged at the hearing, or 2. interrogate the validity of the responses offered by the government. In fact, the writer seems to have unquestioningly adopted the official state position on immigration matters generally, to the extent that the article’s title comes verbatim from the lips of the deputy prime minister.
Whenever a journalist accepts one of several competing narratives uncritically, a host of (hopefully) unintended biases tend to creep into the writing. Thus, Rights Bahamas’ presentation is declared “embarrassing”, “poorly worded” and “wholly disappointing”. But embarrassing and disappointing to whom, exactly? Poorly worded according to what standard? These are not objective assessments, but rather vague and subjective value judgements offered as self-evident and not substantiated in any way.
Certainly, we in Rights Bahamas don’t agree with them. Nor do the dozens of victims of official abuse who we represent.
Crucially, the IACHR commissioners themselves do not seem to agree either. Consider:
1. The commissioners’ pointed statements to the government concerning the country’s detention practices.
2. The fact that this is the second hearing (these are not granted lightly) on the treatment of migrants in The Bahamas granted in the space of four years.
3. That on December 30, 2014, the IACHR imposed precautionary measures on The Bahamas over conditions at the detention center, recognizing: threats to the life and physical integrity of the persons detained there; hygienic conditions and inadequate medical treatment; a lack of legal assistance; overcrowding; and a lack of access for civil society and international organizations to monitor conditions.
4. The commission’s stated desire to come to The Bahamas and evaluate the situation on the ground for themselves.
This level of interest from a perpetually oversubscribed and constantly in-demand commission, whose attention is fervently sought across the Americas, does not simply appear out of thin air.
Furthermore, the internationally respected Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Justice, which has visited The Bahamas on several occasions, fully endorsed Rights Bahamas’ presentation, while over the years, other international groups with a presence in The Bahamas have raised similar concerns.
Clearly, the international human rights community does not buy into the government’s rosy picture of how it treats migrants. And while it is understandable that a nation under scrutiny would seek to bury its head in the sand under the circumstances, it is unacceptable for journalists to quiescently follow suit.
Did the writer ever investigate the legality of the government’s immigration enforcement procedures? Or speak with the actual victims of the abuses alleged by Rights Bahamas? For example, did they ever speak to Earl Burton, who just last year, told of extremely inhumane treatment, unsanitary conditions, and severe beatings by immigration officers?
Did he ever speak to Fanel Gassant who, also in 2018, told of terrible overcrowding, a lack of beds, rotten food and dirty toilets? “I suffered like an animal captured and placed in a cage,” he said. “In fact, we were treated like animals, in that we had to sleep on the floor, we had to wake up and stand outside at midnight to be counted.”
Did he ever speak to Kediesha Bent-John, dragged out of her house along with her young daughter – the child of a Bahamian citizen – after having her home was illegally ransacked and her possessions rifled by aggressive and intimidating officers? Does he know how the mother and daughter were locked day and night in a filthy “safe house” guarded by male officers who walked in when the women were showering? Does he know Kediesha was denied food for three days; extorted for money; refused the right to speak to anyone, including a lawyer?
These examples are but the tip of an ever-growing dung heap of human misery that the policies of successive governments have engendered. The testimonials are all sworn and filed with the courts, in the public domain and easily accessible by any journalist who cares to tell the victims’ side of this story. Rights Bahamas has more testimonials of this kind than we can count. Surely, these are worthy of at least cursory investigation before our presentation is denigrated.
Furthermore, did the writer ever read Smith vs. Commissioner of Police, Tamara Merson vs. The Attorney General or any of the many other Supreme Court decisions declaring that current immigration policies violate the constitutional guarantee to freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary detention? Apparently not, or he could not have claimed that Rights Bahamas’ statements to this effect were “blatantly false”.
Has he read the many testimonials that speak to an explosion of casual discrimination following the PLP’s aggressive 2014 immigration policy – pregnant women denied prenatal care because of their accent, old men turned away from NIB because of their last name, children of foreign parents turned away from school. Apparently not, or else he could not so easily have dismissed the connection between government policy and heightened prejudice.
A third point is the question of accuracy and completeness. Taking umbrage with the language Rights Bahamas used to describe immigration enforcement policy, the article states: “State-sanctioned, institutionalized terror is when a government drops sarin gas on its people, killing dozens… State-sanctioned, institutionalized terror is when 43 students from a teachers college in Mexico are arrested by local police and never seen again.”
This is true; these examples of mass murders and disappearings are extreme examples of state-sanctioned, institutionalized terror. But they aren’t the only examples; nor by any means do they exhaust the definition. Terrorism is simply “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. Sometimes it means murder, but not always.
The aggressive nighttime raids, roadblocks and detentions carried out by the Bahamas Immigration Department are 1. unlawful, violating many court rulings and virtually all of the individual rights and due process protections enshrined in the Bahamas constitution; 2. violent and intimidating, and each and every one of them is intimidated and deeply, probably permanently, traumatized, especially the children; and 3. intended to further political aims: it is the height of illogic to attack established inland communities where only six percent of the inhabitants are undocumented, as a means of stemming the flow of irregular migrants arriving elsewhere by boat. Unless, that is, your real aim is to put on a show, create a spectacle and impress voters anxious about the effects of undocumented migration.
Unlawful violence and intimidation. Carried out by state actors. For political means. If it isn’t state-sanctioned, institutionalized terror, what is it?
Again, all of the relevant laws, all of these cases, are in the public domain and available to any reporter interested in giving a balanced account. Rights Bahamas is willing to provide; all they have to do is ask.
Writing, if it argues from preconceptions, presents a partisan perspective, or indulges in emotive rather than factual propositions, can’t properly be called journalism. And, to the extent that it fails to focus primarily on scrutinizing the actions and statements of the powers that be – in the interest of protecting the average person’s right no know – I would argue that it is again undeserving of that lofty designation. Such writing is known by a different name entirely.
In their professional capacity, journalists are not supposed to concern themselves with bolstering nationalism or marching lockstep with the government towards some perceived general good; they are supposed to focus on getting to the truth, whether or not they like the picture it paints. Nor does the fact that this was a news analysis piece absolve the writer from his obligation to balance and objectivity, especially if he is a career journalist.
Perhaps the writer of “Dangerous and reckless” would be willing to spare some time to meet with Rights Bahamas and our legal advisors, maybe even interview some of the victims we represent. He may then come to recognize the frightening accuracy of the picture we have painted.
– Paco Nunez, secretary general, Rights Bahamas