If reporters at Dr Luncheon’s press conferences often get themselves tangled in the thicket of words, such was not the case on Wednesday; the Cabinet Secretary’s deliveries were a model of straightforwardness and clarity. As a matter of fact, they were also quite revolutionary. He unveiled an altogether new principle of democratic government to the assembled media corps that should render ethicists and political scientists – in fact anyone whose thought processes veer towards the rational end of the cognitive spectrum – absolutely speechless. That principle is that expediency should override the law of the land whenever it suits the government – although it was not expressed in those terms. It is not that other supposedly democratic governments do not operate like that sometimes, but they certainly don’t advertise publicly that they are doing so, and when caught out, express suitable noises of remorse and declare their intention of ensuring it does not happen again.
The specific issue which brought this into the open was the Ministry of Education’s invitation to selected businesses to bid for the contract of pirating textbooks in defiance of the Copyright Act. It was Mr Lloyd Austin in a letter to the Wednesday edition of this newspaper who first drew the matter to public attention, but it was Dr Luncheon’s nonchalant defence of it which caused outrage. The inevitable question is, if the government is prepared to break the law in this instance because it is inconvenient, how can it be trusted to uphold it in other cases? In fact, as is well known, the government is in breach of the law in all kinds of areas; it is just that it hasn’t attempted to publicly argue its right to act illegally before. In other instances where it has been accused of illegality, it has simply denied that it was operating outside the law.
Expediency in this case took the form that the nation was too poor to purchase copyrighted textbooks for distribution in schools, and was therefore justified in pirating them. Quality issues being equal, said Dr Luncheon, it was all about cheapness in this case. He made a reference to the principles behind tender selection in general – quality and price – but that hardly helped his case. While tendering processes have been notoriously lacking in transparency in this country, we have reached a new low when the tender documents themselves specify the need for the applicant to break the law in order to bid. “All text and workbook [sic] must be done to a similar likeness of the original,” said the bid specifications brazenly, if not too felicitously, going on to state later that “printing presses, scanners, bindery…. etc,” would be some of the criteria on which suppliers would be evaluated.
Now it so happens that the government seems to have been engaged in piracy for some time, but when Dr Luncheon was asked about former Minister of Education Shaik Baksh denying last year that the ministry was pirating textbooks, he gave one of his more typically opaque responses: “It would be safe to say that the emphasis on seeing the procurement of textbooks as an activity conceived, engineered and executed by an individual minister, I would want to represent, that is a serious misconception.” He then went on to say that such a decision was taken by the entire Cabinet – which still does not answer the question as to whether the government tendered for pirated textbooks last year and whether Mr Baksh lied about it. The answer at least to the first question would seem to be yes; what is different about this year is that the government was caught in flagrante, complete with incriminating tender documents, pre-selected bidders all of whom were in the reproduction business, and the public opening of bids.
In any case, the whole issue of ‘cheapness’ was torpedoed out of the water first by Mr Ruel Johnson in a letter to this newspaper on Friday, and on entirely different grounds by the Publishers Association of the UK in their letter in SN yesterday. “Of the millions of dollars that have gone to wasted white elephant facilities under the President’s Youth Choice Initiative,” Mr Johnson wrote, “of the billions that have made it into the questionable Marriott deal, of the billions that have been lost in the bungling of the Amaila Falls project, a fraction could have been invested in the proper procurement of copyrighted material to benefit our children.” Ms House of the Publishers Association for her part, made the obvious and fundamental point that the Guyana government had not contacted the publishers about supplying legitimate books, which “makes the government’s claim that this illegal action is justified by concern over price totally redundant and disingenuous, if not hypocritical.”
There are too, ethical considerations of a different order which have been raised by some of our correspondents, one of which quite simply is how can a ministry which is emphasising character building, etc, in schools, set an example of breaking the law to the very children they are hoping to teach to observe it? Is the lesson for them too that they should uphold the law only when it is expedient to do so? Or is the expediency principle for government alone and no one else? If the Cabinet members hope that the latter will be the lesson, they will be disappointed; morals, as one former PPP/C Minister of Education liked to say, are better caught than taught. Children are not slow; the specific lesson they will extract from this particular case is that being poor is a justification for breaking the law – and what can the government answer to that? How can they condemn children who steal because they say they are impoverished after this? If the government is now taking up a position that it will uphold the law only when it is expedient to do so – or by extension, only when it suits them – then there is no law at all. One can only speculate as to what the current Minister of Education (who is a lawyer) was thinking when she sat in Cabinet and allowed her colleagues to go this route.
Dr Luncheon did not try and pretend that Cabinet was in ignorance of the law; in any case, one presumes that the Attorney General was present at the meeting when the decision was being made, and should have advised the ministers that they would be in breach of the Copyright Act if they proceeded. Did he do so and they ignored him? Or did he not do so? If so, why not?
As it is Mr Bryn Pollard has written on this subject before, adverting the public’s attention to the laws governing the protection of copyright works in this country. “The national legislation of Guyana giving legal effect to the aforementioned international copyright conventions is the Copyright (British Guiana) Order 1966 of the United Kingdom,” he wrote some years ago in KN in response to an editorial in the Guyana Chronicle. He went on to explain that this “extended to the former colony of British Guiana the Copyright Act 1956 of the United Kingdom.” The UK itself replaced this act, wrote Mr Pollard, as have some other Caricom states, such as Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica, although these have not kept pace with technological developments in the field.
The international conventions to which Guyana and other Caricom states are party, said Mr Pollard, and which are reflected in the 1956 Act, are the Berne Convention of 1886, and the Universal Copyright Convention of 1950, which afford copyright protection for “stated periods.” So the Government of Guyana is in breach not only of local legislation, but also of international conventions – not that that is likely to be a source of discomfiture to them given their past record.
Mr Pollard also indicated that Guyana too under the present government when Ms Gail Teixeira was Minister of Culture, had “drafted and circulated [a Copyright Bill] among interested persons, and it was later the subject of discussions at a meeting convened by her and held at the Umana Yana with her as the chairperson.” So why, one wonders, was this abandoned? Would the government like to say why they failed to pursue this issue when it is so critical to the development of a cultural industry? Surely it was not for the sake of some ‘cheap’ textbooks?
So here we are, with the administration operating as though this country was not party to the conventions named above, or the 1956 Act was not on the statute books or had applicability to the Government of Guyana. And here we have the Secretary to the Cabinet, no less, telling the world: “You could be a publisher with a copyright and you could offer to sell me the book for $1. My friend is a good photocopy artist and he could sell me the book for 10 cents. All of you are going to bid but who do you think is going to get it?”
If Dr Luncheon and the entire Cabinet have not fallen down the rabbit hole into a ‘Through the Looking Glass’ world, then the rest of us are all Mad Hatters.