Opinion | Once again, House speaker out of order

A large chair does not make a king, as the African proverb so aptly states, and House Speaker Halson Moultrie repeatedly reminds us why this is such a truism.

Moultrie continues to demonstrate that he is out of his depth when it comes to some of the rulings he hands down, although he occupies an important seat in our Parliament.

Yesterday, Moultrie bizarrely ordered the cell phone of The Nassau Guardian reporter who was covering House proceedings seized as she took photographs of Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper while he spoke into the record of the House.

The reporter, Jasper Ward, took the images to accompany her story.

The speaker stopped Cooper as he was speaking. He said, “In the gallery, the reporter, it is against the rules of this House, and that has been explained when we had the disturbance in this House, for any reporter to use their cell phone in this chamber and to take photographs or videos in this chamber without the approval of the chair.

“And so, on this occasion, I request that you turn your cell phone over to the clerk and to have that portion of the video that you just recorded deleted from your cell phone, and in future, seek the permission of the chair before you are permitted and allowed to take any video footage within the chamber.”

The reporter did not shoot any video, but took several photographs of Cooper.

Mangrove Cay and South Andros MP Picewell Forbes said on the floor of the House that he was “taken aback” by the speaker’s statement about the media.

“A reporter is in this place to report the stories as they are taking place in this place … The Office of the Prime Minister’s staff comes in here daily and uses their phone,” the PLP MP rightly observed.

Moultrie then stopped Forbes and asked him to take his seat.

“I specifically said that the permission of the chair must be sought and gained before you are permitted to take footage and if you would stop for a moment and examine the rules, you would discover that even the Hansard, with respect to taking certain footage within the chamber, even the Hansard is restricted within the rules,” he said.

David Forbes, the House clerk, then called the reporter out of the gallery and motioned to her to delete the images, which she did. But the images were later retrieved from the trash bin of the phone’s photo gallery.

The Nassau Guardian has for decades been taking photographs in the House of Assembly and Senate to accompany stories.

The speaker now seems to be concerned that we are using a cell phone to do so. Photographers’ cameras can do much of what cell phones now do and more.

The Nassau Guardian photographer, who eventually showed up and took additional images in the House of Assembly yesterday, has not had any special permission to do so. She has captured hundreds of images of House proceedings over many months. Other Nassau Guardian photographers have done so over years.

What the speaker seems to be saying then, is that all of the photographs we have taken in the House of Assembly were obtained against the House rules.

This is the declaration of someone who appears more enthralled with his perceived power than with any actual fidelity to House rules.

To order a reporter’s phone seized and images deleted is unprecedented and unsettling. It is an overreach and a throwback to darker days in our democracy.

In making his eyebrow-raising ruling yesterday, Moultrie pointed to rule 89, which speaks to broadcasting during proceedings of the House. That requires that cameras focus on the member recognized by the speaker.

It also states that no close-up shots of members’ papers or computing devices are permitted.

That rule did not really relate to the reporter taking photos of the member yesterday.

If he has no issue with a Nassau Guardian staff member taking photographs on a digital camera, we fail to see why he has an issue with a Nassau Guardian staff member — someone he knows to be and, in fact, identified as a reporter — taking images with a cell phone, especially since there is no ban against the media taking cell phones into the chamber.

Back in June, after the sister of Centreville MP Reece Chipman shouted accusations from the gallery, the speaker made the following ruling with respect to cell phone use in Parliament.

He said, “…The ruling of this chair with respect to cell phones is as follows: No stranger would be permitted to bring a cell phone into the chamber of this Parliament without first receiving permission from the speaker via the clerk of this Parliament.

“Technocrats of the government would be permitted to bring their cell phones into the chambers of the Parliament.

“The media would be permitted to bring their cell phones into the chambers of the Parliament and of course members are permitted to bring their computer and cell phones into the Parliament.

“But under no circumstance should any recording of the proceedings of this Parliament by cell phone be broadcast without first receiving clearance from the presiding officer of the Parliament.”

Nothing in that ruling stated that the media cannot take photos on cell phones.

The speaker seems to have a general problem with media. This is worrying. We do not know whether it is based on our general criticisms of his various unfair rulings over the last two years.

Yesterday, he claimed the media have “descended” to a worrying level.

Moultrie said: “I can imagine the press demonizing the speaker as a person who is trying to prevent freedom of speech, freedom of expression … but I am of the view, and I would say this for the record, that the media, despite all the change in technology, they have descended to a level in this country that needs to be addressed.

“They are competing with social media and as a consequence a number of false reports, fake reports and opinionated stories that are appearing in the newspapers, and I have even seen on social media videos of members of Parliament that have been taken completely out of context and other information presented on social media.

“It is being done. It cannot be denied and so we have to maintain a certain level in this chamber to protect the institution itself from that sort of infringement by unscrupulous persons because in every sector of society you would have those types of individuals and the media is not exempted from that. That has been my experience in this two and a half years.”

It is unfortunate that the speaker would make such a blanket statement without specifically explaining what it is he is referring to. Who are the unscrupulous members of the media whose reporting he has taken issue with? What exactly has been reported from the halls of Parliament that amounts to “fake reports” and exactly what constitutes the “infringement” he has witnessed?

While the media are not always perfect in reporting, Moultrie is sending worrying signals in his treatment of and statements against media who cover the Parliament of The Bahamas.

He has reached into an area that reflects poorly on his position of speaker.

But it is not just the media who have faced unfair treatment from the current speaker.

The unfairness in some of his other rulings is telling.

Opposition members can attest to this, but also other MPs critical of the governing party.

Yesterday, Moultrie chastised Centreville MP Reece Chipman, Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller and Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine for speaking to each other while an MP was speaking into the record of the House.

They were not being disruptive.

This is something we have seen many times before in Parliament. On many occasions, the prime minister and ministers have had their own conversations going on while proceedings were taking place.

To single out those three MPs again demonstrated the speaker’s bias.

McAlpine rightly observed the speaker’s bias yesterday, given that Moultrie has on so many occasions ignored this same behavior from certain other MPs.

While the speaker appears enamored with his own authority, his failure to be impartial in decision making would cause more to lose respect for him.c

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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