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About freedom of speech

It was disheartening to hear David Burt, for the second time in three weeks, criticise people who represent significant segments of Bermuda's business community for allegedly “negotiating through the media”.

On the first occasion, last month, it was the Bermuda Hotel Association on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from the Premier.

And then on Monday evening, it was Dennis Fagundo, president of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce, who was subject to a milder delivery of the same message after an interview with this newspaper.

Their crime? To go public with their suggestions to the Government on what would help their members survive the Covid-19 crisis.

Leaders of both bodies mentioned the potential impact of a section in the Employment Act that requires a layoff to become a termination after four months. In today's exceptional circumstances, mass severance payments could be the last straw for those businesses largely shuttered and without income for months, causing bankruptcies and permanent loss of jobs, they argued.

The Premier's criticism of the Chamber and the BHA for sharing with the media some of what they are requesting is out of line on at least two levels.

First, discussions between the Government and umbrella business organisations whose members employ thousands of Bermudians should not carry the same expectation of privacy as negotiations between two private companies, for example.

In the two cases Mr Burt highlighted, one party chose to share information, not on delicate bones of contention in advanced talks, but basic items on their starting wish list.

Why shouldn't the public be kept informed of what industry is asking for, even if the Government wants to keep it under wraps?

After all, taxpayers end up footing the bill for any concessions the Government agrees.

In addition, thousands of workers laid off a couple of months ago would surely appreciate knowing that the section of a law that would give them a redundancy payout in another two months is a topic of discussion.

The issues in question are clearly of intense public interest and directly affect thousands of people.

Knowing what is on the agenda gives workers, business owners and the general public an opportunity to join the discussion and express their thoughts and concerns.

Should we, the public, not have our say before being presented with a fait accompli?

The second reason why Mr Burt's criticism is unfair is the basic right of freedom of speech that exists in Bermuda. People should not be intimidated by those in power for sharing reasonable opinions.

To be targeted by Bermuda's leader in a press conference being watched live by half the country amounts to intimidation.

Whether or not it was a calculated move by Mr Burt to deter others from sharing their views with the media, and thus the wider public, that is likely to be the impact. Politicians and journalists are used to high-level public criticism, of course, whether fair or unfair. It comes with the territory.

But the leaders of the BHA and the Chamber, who did not sign up for the verbal hurly-burly of politics, are reasonable people who innocently expressed reasoned views.

The country needs more of that during this unprecedented crisis, not less. Policymakers are navigating uncharted waters.

Vigorous and open public discourse can help to inform their decisions.

The Employment Act layoff time limit is an excellent example. Mr Fagundo told The Royal Gazette that having to make a slew of severance payments could “make a cash-poor business bankrupt — and then nobody has a job”.

Mr Burt said the law was there to protect the rights of workers and that without redundancy payouts, households of the unemployed could go bankrupt.

No one wants either scenario to happen, but the open discussion of all sides is the healthy route to an agreement to do what's necessary to minimise the pain for workers, businesses and the wider public alike.

As Mr Fagundo emphasised: “It's not something that anybody expects to be solved quickly. It's a challenge because you have to work out what is the best thing to do to ensure the best outcome for everybody.”

A reticence to speak out is already apparent in Bermuda, understandable to some extent in a small community. Opinions are shared freely among friends and like-minded people, or from behind a cloak of anonymity online.

But those who have the courage to put their head above the parapet and speak out on contentious issues have particular value to our community, whether you agree with them or not.

They should be celebrated and not vilified.

Unfair criticism: David Burt, the Premier, speaks during Monday's press conference on the novel coronavirus pandemic (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published June 03, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 03, 2020 at 8:43 am)

About freedom of speech

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