We do not need to mimic a law assembled in 1919 for repression of colonial subjects

Dear Editor,

When I hear the words “sedition” and “seditious laws or clause” I am compelled to reach for history, especially the little known, repressive clamp down on freedom of expression, political sentiment or resistance by the British Empire.

The law of sedition was reportedly first invoked after the 1857 “mutiny” or war of independence in India.

In the case of Guyana a seditious publications law was famously enacted to curtail, as in other parts of the empire, the rapid rise of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) from the time of its foundation in the USA in 1914.

In 1918 the British Guiana governor, Wilfred Collett, enquired from a fellow governor in the Caribbean of the likely presence of “certain Negroes” active on behalf of the UNIA. This authoritarian questioning from Governor Collett led directly to the proclamation of the much debated and controversial Seditious Publications Bill of 1919, one of the most repressive pieces of legislation effected in the colony. Section 5(a) of the bill stated that “any person to whom a newspaper or other form of literature which has a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt His Majesty or any British Government official of judicial administration or any class of his Majesty’s subjects, or to excite disaffection towards his Majesty, has been sent, with or without his knowledge, shall forthwith deliver up to the Officer in Charge of the nearest police station such newspaper or form of literature, and in default thereof shall be guilty of an offence against this Ordinance…and any person who has a copy of such  journal and fails to deliver it up to the nearest police station is therefore liable to penal servitude for life, or imprisonment with or without hard labour to a term of seven years, or to a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars, or to both penal servitude and fine, or to both imprisonment and fine…”

The Seditious Publications Bill of 1919 was introduced mainly to prohibit Garvey’s Negro World newspaper from circulating in the colony. British Guiana colonial authorities were worried about Garvey’s outreach activity even before the first UNIA branch had been organised on Guyanese soil (The UNIA would eventually maintain a minimum of approximately seven functioning groups in then British Guiana). The legislation also affected The Crisis, the paper of the American civil rights group, the NAACP copies of which filtered into the colony. The vigorous debate and opposition to the Seditious Publications Bill coincided with the rise to public office of non-white middle class politicians and legislators who were slowly overcoming the structural, political and social barriers and seeking political representation in the highest organs of the colony. Notable among those outspokenly critical of the sedition bill were Hubert Critchlow and his British Guiana Labour Union, AA Thorne, the East Indian Association, EF Fredericks, and  Dr TT Nichols (the latter two were later involved in the founding of the Negro Progress Convention in 1922). Even the usually conservative Daily Argosy condemned the sedition bill, deeming it in an editorial of the same headline a “Menace to Honest Criticism.”

Now in 2018, we have another iteration of the sedition bill, albeit also designed to suppress free expression in the new social media as against newspapers of old. A century after the 1919 law, a repeat of that law or a variation of it is anachronistic and repressive. Clause 18 of the Cybercrime Bill as tabled in National Assembly should be resisted with the utmost resolve.  It should be removed, period.

In the 21st century we do not need to mimic a law assembled for repression of colonial subjects or citizens. Other writers have commented forcibly and clearly on the legal and other dangers of such a clause in the present bill. I wanted to comment briefly on the historical background and the ways in which such laws undermined the efforts of earlier Guianese citizens across race – albeit then colonial subjects – to speak out on issues of national concern.

Yours faithfully,

Nigel Westmaas

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