When the sword is mightier than ‘the pen’

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When is freedom of expression no longer free? When you cannot be held accountable for it.

Almost two years ago, The Royal Gazette revised policy on Letters to the Editor whereby we discontinued the practice of allowing our local readers, and those from farther afield, “freedom” to pen attacks of a personal, political or business nature while using a pseudonym. Although this decision meant a slight decrease in submitted letters, the level of discourse improved exponentially and this newspaper profited reputationally as a result.

Today we go one step farther in that pseudonyms, or pen names, will no longer be accepted for letters of any sort. This is undoubtedly a blow to the well-intentioned — anonymous Good Samaritans, if you will — but in taking this decision, all manner of ambiguity that evolved post-November 2015 is removed.

It is essential that we have a clear policy where no double standards can be inferred or accusations of favouritism levelled with any surety.

The move puts us in step with most serious papers around the world, even those whose readership or reach is similar in size to Bermuda’s. The moral being: serious papers publish serious letters submitted by serious writers who are bold and confident enough to stand by what they write.

Those who think this a step too far — and one valued letter writer has already signalled that it would be the end for him as a contributor if he lost his pen name — use, among others things, the threat of retribution as a reason to stick with the status quo.

But if Bermuda, post-Election ’17, is to heal from the many divisions of the past and plot what some might consider a utopian future where the social classes are melded into one, we have to start somewhere.

Among the most scathing of frontline media in its explanation for doing away with pen names was The Washington Post. “Our reasoning is that readers have a right to know who is speaking to them, and writers need to take responsibility for what they say,” Fred Hiatt, a Post page editor, said.

“There are many understandable reasons people may have to want to keep their identities private. At the same time, there’s no inherent right to be published on an op-ed or letters page.”

And that is it in a nutshell. Are any rights being infringed upon? We do not believe so. Rather we welcome open discourse in the letters page and through commenting, where admittedly controls are more relaxed but not for the lack of trying.

Restricting the website to genuinely named users is the final frontier in the war against those who troll, incite and bring about the premature end of conversation.

Glenn Chase, a resident of Warwick at the time, longed for this day when he wrote a letter to the editor five years ago in November and it bears repeating here:

“Dear Sir, I am grateful that you have considered and subsequently published my letters recently in The Royal Gazette. I regard myself as a man of principle and honesty; particularly to issues that concern my fellow beings, that truth should prevail in all circumstances. To that end, one should stand by one’s convictions. A man/woman who ‘stands for nothing, will fall for anything’. My concern is that apparently some members of our community lack the intestinal fortitude to publicly sign/autograph their values or opinions (re: Letters to the Editor). Why is that? Could it be shame or guilt? Or, are they disingenuous in their mission/motive? Are they preoccupied with the opinion of others? I encourage others not to ‘hide’ behind aliases, believe in what you believe in, to stand firm in whatever passion, belief, philosophy and ideology you hold dear to your heart.”

We apologise to Mr Chase and those who have suffered in silence that it took this long to remove the cloak of anonymity and give a valuable medium that much more credibility.

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Published Sep 1, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 1, 2017 at 10:38 am)

When the sword is mightier than ‘the pen’

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