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Culture Clash: Stifling The Press Won’t Get The Job Done, Dr Minnis

We have a media and communications problem in The Bahamas. Some would have us believe this is a reflection of the competence and work ethic of journalists, avoiding their own responsibility.

While I should not have been shocked, I was disappointed by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ speech, from start to finish, at this year’s Bahamas Press Club Awards. In it, he expressed great displeasure in the work of the press which is often a reflection of his performance.

It is now abundantly clear he blames the press for his loss of popularity points, and that he has decided against self-reflection, or even being open to feedback on his positions, actions and inaction over the past six months. It is unfortunate he carried so much blame only to lay it at the feet of the people who do the critical work of keeping Bahamians informed.

In his speech, Minnis — an obstetrician and gynecologist now serving as Prime Minister — attempted to tell journalists how to do their jobs.

He highlighted the “obligation to report on policy matters” and accused the press of reporting on “less substantial” stories he deemed to be much easier to cover.

This is simultaneously laughable and infuriating, particularly when it seems near impossible for the press to obtain statements from at least one Minister.

It was reported that RISE, the Conditional Cash Transfer project, was cancelled and it took days to get a rather generic statement that offered no insight.

Minnis bragged about the appointment of a Press Secretary, but is there a real benefit to the Bahamian people, or does it allow Ministers and Members of Parliament to avoid the press and scapegoat a person who can offer no substantive comment without their direction? If the Press Secretary exists to limit or delay access to information, we can certainly do without that liability.

Interestingly, Minnis encouraged journalists to “give their readers and viewers a more global perspective”.

While it is beneficial to know what is happening throughout the region and all over the world, many Bahamians are barely able to keep up with national news; not because of incompetence or disinterest, but because of the time-consuming, energy-sucking struggle to make ends meet.

Tasked with working more than one job because we’re not even talking about a living wage, meeting household responsibilities, waiting for unpredictable lengths of time for buses that do not run on a schedule or even stay on route and exercising financial and culinary creativity to feed ourselves, who can really dig into comparative politics?

If RISE is cancelled, jobs are lost, and the Prime Minister is talking about increasing pay for Members of Parliament, most of us would rather not delve into international news.

In fact, when we do dare to talk about global affairs and make comparisons, party operatives are quick in their attempts to shut down conversations that open eyes to possibilities or spark ideas which deviate from the norm — a norm that benefits the elite.

According to Minnis, “The best journalism criticises, celebrates, and inspires”. He bemoaned the “negativity and cynicism” of journalists, even venturing to say news reports are predictable. The news, however, is not fiction. Journalists report on what is real, what exists and what is verifiable. It is not their job to give us the will to carry on. It is not their job to make us feel good — or bad — about the state of the nation. Minnis even noted himself that journalists are not to champion any organisations or causes, so it is strange he would want the news to be more inspiring and positive than the reality of this country and its governance.

We, the Bahamian people, want to read about the Freedom of Information Act. We want to know what is happening with the RISE program and how people are accessing social services benefits. We want to have access to the bills being debated in Parliament. We want to be a part of the decision-making process.

This does not mean, however, we do not want follow-ups on stories that leave us without critical information because no one is available to answer questions. It does not mean we don’t want to hear from the people who have access to and a long-term relationship with information, whether they are bringing nothing but facts or offering further commentary as fellow citizens of this nation. It does not mean we will support or condone a speech that belittles or attempts to limit the people we depend on to bring us information that, quite often, we would never get from the source.

Non-jokes about intimate partner violence and the failure of MPs to disclose are just two stories that heightened our awareness of pervasive issues of national concern, sparking movements to shift culture.

The press cannot be blamed for national sentiments about any government administration, political party, or political figure.

If any of these bodies or individuals are particularly concerned about their image or their work, it is advisable for them to reflect on their words, deeds and misdeeds and how they measure up to our demands. If they want to read and hear reports of good governance, the first step is to practice it.

Freedom of the press is real and trying to stifle or suppress it will not get the job done.

As the Prime Minister said: “There are many wonderful and positive stories reported by the press, though I sometimes believe there can be even more.”

Journalists could report on the enactment of Marco’s Law. They could report on the consultative process and passing of the highly anticipated Freedom of Information Act. They could report on the fulfilment of promises like term limits for Prime Ministers. They could report on positive, exciting, endorphin-inducing events, but they need to happen first.

It’s time to focus on making the news we want reported. All Bahamian citizens, whether in the Cabinet or Parliament or not, need to recognise our role in the governance of this country and immediately cease the shirking of personal, professional and national responsibility. Do something newsworthy and then dare the press to ignore it.

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Culture Clash: Mps, Prove Your Worth Before Even Thinking About A Pay Rise

We, the Bahamian people, are frequent victims of the bait and switch. Parties in opposition agree with us, promise to represent our positions, then forget about us once they have consent to govern on our behalf.

They repeatedly fail to show their understanding of the duties we’ve entrusted them to carry out. Good intentions, wherever they existed, seem to fly out the window as they face off with their opposition and each other, figuring out how to make the most of their sudden privilege.

Do we reap the benefits of their arrangements, or are they purely personal? How can the perks of life as a Member of Parliament trickle down to constituents in need?

What should we be thinking about now, particularly as salary increase for Members of Parliament continues to dominate national dialogue.

The Member of Parliament: Who, What, and How?

The Member of Parliament is the presence and the voice of the people. The vote of the MP is a reflection of the constituency’s position on the issue. The MP is committed to amplifying the voices of their constituents after actively listening to and understanding them. The MP is accessible to constituents. There is an office, staffed and open during reasonable hours that are made known to the public. There are phone numbers and email addresses that work and messages are answered in a timely fashion. The MP is in the constituency on a regular basis and not only knows the needs, but addresses them without being asked by dozens, scores, or hundreds of people, or being shamed on social media. The MP sees to it road repairs are done, tree branches on power lines are moved and people are connected with organisations and individuals who can help meet their needs.

The MP meets with constituency members on a regular basis. The MP reports on proceedings in Parliament, provides information on bills being debated, updates members on participation in regional and national events, welcomes feedback, answers questions and considers constituents’ points of view before arriving at a position. Constituents are the first priority of the MP, never eclipsed by personal desires or party pressure. The MP knows the salary and expectations of the position before running for or accepting it and is prepared for that reality for the duration of the term.

What we got for our votes

Do we have MPs who know why they have a seat, remember who gave it to them and treat their constituents like their employers? Is there a way to assess MP performance? Are we, as Bahamian citizens, voters and employers, working together to access and keep record of MP positions on issues and contributions to debates?

The current administration campaigned heavily on accountability and transparency, but we have yet to see it develop systems that align with those concepts. In fact, it looks a lot like their version of accountability and transparency are only retrospective. They are more interested in exposing and punishing the previous administration, giving the nation a series of spectacles.

It is as though current MPs intend to ride out this term the same way the rode out the last one — pointing fingers and hoping to be seen as the lesser of the evils because they think we have no other choice. Are we prepared to let them think that? Do we want to give our votes to (members of) the party that does the least damage simply by doing the absolute minimum? Are we ready to demand true governance and evidence of the accountability and transparency they claimed to value throughout their campaign?

What is good governance?

In May 2017, the Bahamian people ousted the PLP and defaulted to the FNM with the expectation of receiving good governance. Good governance is accountable and transparent, but also responsive, inclusive and participatory. We know accountability is responsibility for decisions and their consequences as well as reporting on and explaining them to the people.

We understand transparency is the ability to see the decision-making process and being able to see the information and consultative activity that led to the chosen action. This administration has not brought us either of these things with reference to its own actions. It has spent months looking back, working to convince us we did that right thing in May, and they are not the worst option.

Have we heard anything about the decisions being made in Parliament? Has any MP invited constituents to discuss bills or policies under consideration? Where decisions have already been made, have we been shown the receipts? Can we see how and why our representatives, our employees, acted as they did? Do we have accountability and transparency?

Can we justify a pay increase?

As employers, we are no clearer on the activities of our MPs today than we were in April. They are not responding to our needs, including us in the decision-making process or encouraging us to participate by making information accessible, conducting polls or surveys or looking to us for recommendations.

Accountability and transparency are still just words being thrown around, stripped of meaning and purpose. How, in this state, can the Prime Minister even hint at increased salaries for MPs? There is no need to get into what has already been pointed out, including the fact MPs hold other paying jobs and many Bahamians have lost their jobs in recent months. More to the point and in keeping with the theme of accountability and transparency, why should we increase pay for MPs when we don’t even know what they are doing? We do not receive reports. We are not invited to give performance evaluations.

We depend on the media to clue us in to what is happening in the country and, more specifically, in Parliament. We do not receive regular communication from our employees, but we are expected to pay them more. For what? Even better, with what? Where is the money supposed to come from? Would this be part of a larger exercise to address the plight of most Bahamian people in the labour force? Is this administration ready to talk about a living wage?

A few things must be made clear. Compensation must be commensurate with performance. The Bahamian people need to observe and participate in monitoring and evaluation. There must be a recall system. Sitting MPs should not be responsible for deciding on their own salaries. To go further, perhaps any raise in salary should come into effect at the start of the next term — in 2022. Until we truly have good governance — accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusivity and participation — we must reject all requests for salary increases. Let’s not forget who is really in charge here. It’s the Bahamian people who would have to pay. Can we afford it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 15, 2017

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Culture Clash: Where Next For Legislation On Gender Equality?

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced last week the current administration will amend legislation in order to allow Bahamian women to automatically transfer citizenship to their children at birth in the same way Bahamian men already do. At present, children born to Bahamian women and non-Bahamian men outside of The Bahamas must apply for Bahamian citizenship between the ages of 18 and 21, and registration as a Bahamian citizen is at the discretion of the Minister.

The Bahamas Nationality Act — not the Immigration Act — speaks to the acquisition of Bahamian citizenship which, in many cases, must be granted by the Minister. By use of the word “automatically” in his statement, it appears Minnis means to amend the Bahamas Nationality Act so there is no application or, at the very least, no interference by the Minister. It is not clear how he intends to do this or the form the new process will take, but it is not “overturning” the referendum vote. Minnis has proposed a completely different action which will not have the same effect as a constitutional amendment.

Recall the conversation about the constitutional referendum of 2016. The Constitutional Commission repeatedly made the distinction between the right to automatic citizenship and the right to apply for citizenship. While bill one — specific to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men being able to transfer citizenship to children born outside of The Bahamas — would have made citizenship automatic if it had passed, bill two — specific to Bahamian women transferring citizenship to their non-Bahamian husbands — would have allowed for an application process that would not have guaranteed citizenship. This is an important distinction to make and understand: the right to apply for citizenship is not the same as the right to acquire citizenship.

Constitution vs. legislation

Since 2014 when the constitutional referendum was announced, some insisted the same goal — equal rights to transfer citizenship to spouses and children — could be achieved through legislation. They insisted the PLP administration, if it was serious about gender equality in citizenship, should just use the Bahamas Nationality Act to get the same results as a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. They did not, however, acknowledge the difference between the constitution and legislation.

The constitution is supreme law. Article two states, “This Constitution is the supreme law of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and the other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” Legislation, such as the Bahamas Nationality Act, fits the “other law” category. This means what is written in the constitution overrides any legislation. That is why it was important to go through the referendum process, making an effort to change the constitution so gender equality in the right to transfer citizenship would exist in supreme law rather than in the Bahamas Nationality Act (which is superseded by the constitution).

What if the Bahamas Nationality Act is amended to allow children born outside of The Bahamas to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men to automatically access Bahamian citizenship? In theory, it would be great.

There would be no need for applications to the Minister, more paperwork going through Cabinet, or waiting for the age of 18. What if, however, there is a legal challenge? What if someone, or a group, decides it is not constitutional? If taken to court, based on Article two of the constitution, we know supreme law holds. This means Article nine — which says those “born legitimately outside The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 whose mother is a citizen of The Bahamas shall entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years and before he attains the age if twenty-one years… to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas” — would carry more weight than any allowance made in the Bahamas Nationality Act.

No change the current administration makes to legislation is the final word. This is the reason the previous administration spent money and other resources on the constitutional referendum of 2016. Is it a step? Maybe. Is it a cure-all? Not at all.

Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Many Bahamians were first introduced to CEDAW after the 2014 announcement of the constitutional referendum. CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and ratified by The Bahamas in 1993. Though we have signed the convention, The Bahamas has made reservations on some Articles including 2(a) on the elimination of discrimination against women in “national constitutions or other appropriate legislation”.

This reservation exists because while Article 26 of the constitution is on protection from discrimination, it does not list sex as a prohibited ground for discrimination and cannot be changed without a simple majority vote by Bahamian citizens.

Article 54 of the constitution states changes to Article 26 — along with many others including 8, 10, and 14 which relate to transfer of citizenship and were included in the 2016 referendum — can only be made following a vote of at least three-quarters of both Houses and a simple majority of eligible Bahamian citizens.

The Bahamas also reserved on Article 9 of CEDAW on equal nationality rights including the ability to acquire, change, or retain nationality and the same rights with respect to their children’s nationality.

Both CEDAW and The Government of The Bahamas recognise the constitution as supreme law and understand the process of changing it. This is at least a part of the reason for The Bahamas’ reservation on the two Articles mentioned here, the decision to go to referendum in 2016, and the response from the Constitutional Commission to the argument that legislation would get the good done just as well.

Power of the Houses

It is critical we understand democracy, governance, law, and power. It is difficult to participate in national discussions without an understanding of the constitution, legislation and how they can be changed. Legislation is being tabled and amended on a regular basis, largely without the public’s attention, much less understanding or agreement. We need to pay more attention to what our Members of Parliament are doing, especially if they are looking to increase their own salaries.

“The People’s Time” can’t just be a snappy slogan; it needs to be a way of life. The people need to set the agenda, supervise our employees, and actively participate in democracy.

It is easy to see Minnis’ announcement as a victory for those of us who wanted a ‘yes’ vote in 2016. It is easy to become distracted by seemingly benevolent actions and to be assuaged by convincing rhetoric. We need to ask questions. What difference will legislative amendments make?

How is this administration acting to shift culture? Does the current composition of Parliament or the Senate reflect an interest in gender parity? How can we learn more about our constitution and existing legislation?

Who is the government, and who is responsible for protecting democracy? Where does the power really sit, and it is being used effectively? How have we contributed to the current political environment? Are we ready to change it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 9, 2017

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Culture Clash: A Twerking Schoolgirl – Where’s The Real Problem?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 1, 2017

Once again a video of high school students has made its rounds on social media. As usual, many clicked the play button with the intention of getting another excuse for perpetual disdain for anyone younger than them. The general public is all-too-ready to point fingers at them, blame them for their circumstances and allow negative story lines to completely eclipse successes, progress and actions worthy of celebration. This time around the country is scandalized by a video of high school girls participating in a dance competition on an in-school fun day. Even if you haven’t seen the video, you probably have an image in mind and it’s probably no more exaggerated than the view of those who have seen it. While it is perplexing that such an event took place on public school grounds, much of the conversation about it has blown it out of proportion and conveniently oversimplified some elements while amplifying and projecting preconceived ideas and prejudices on to others. Rather than examine the content of the video and its implications, I’m interested in focusing on the way we, Bahamian people of other (older) generations, talked about it and revealed our own truths.

Objectification of Women and Girls

The bodies of women and girls have long been seen as dual-purpose — meant for the enjoyment of men during sex and repopulating the earth through its reproductive functions. Misogynoir complicates this for black girls who deal with a double whammy — the intersection of gender and race. As girls’ bodies change, they are subjected to the lustful attention of men and boys, but also to the judgment of society at large which makes absurd assumptions about them. As breasts grow, hips widen and curves form, people start to wonder about their sexual lives. Are they having sex? How? Do they have boyfriends? Do they know how they look, particularly to men and boys? Are they dressing appropriately, deflecting attention and avoiding the male gaze?

In conversations about the video, there were far too many comments about the bodies of the girls shown dancing. Most people seemed to mistake one of the students for a teacher. They decided, of course, this was her fault. How could her body be that size and shape? Why would she move it in that way? What made her wear that? Didn’t she know how she would look?

Already, before getting to the content or the context of the video, this student was at fault for something. She is deceptive. She made us think she was an adult. She is a teenager living in a body that could easily belong to an adult. She might be considered sexy by boys and men alike. Whose fault is this? Who should be punished? What could she do better, or just differently, to stop our minds from arriving at the wrong conclusions? Is it her job to fix or control our thought processes?

Girls Get the Blame

This is not unlike the recent debates in the US about girls being sent home for wearing clothes school administration considered potentially “distracting” to boys, or the trial women and girls are on when they report sexual assault. There are always people and policies insisting we must have done something wrong to attract unwanted attention, and that it is our job to regulate the behaviour of men and boys because they, by nature, have no self control.

From a young age, girls are taught to dress, sit, walk and speak in specific ways so that as girl, and later on as women, can protect ourselves. We are told to make ourselves smaller and quieter. The goal is to go unnoticed. Girls are not to laugh too loudly, speak too much, or show too much of their bodies. By doing any of these things, we become human and our existence is noticed. When our presence it noticed, the first thing people see is our bodies because it is the most visible part of ourselves. Still, our bodies are not seen like the bodies of men and boys. Our bodies are automatically reduced to orifices and incubators and some would have us believe this is the natural order of things, that men and women are wired this way, but that is far too convenient for one sex. It is far too dehumanizing for the other. It is the easy way out of a serious conversation about the outright refusal to see women and girls as human beings.

Sexualization by Adults

The girls in the video dance, and the way they dance is not unlike the way people in their 20s or 30s dance, or danced when they were in high school. It is not a great departure from the body movements of our ancestors, or their celebrations of womanhood. There has always been gyration, expressions of happiness and what we may now see as theatrics. The dances practised now are obviously inspired by more than our history, including trends in music and music videos and new takes on old moves emerging across the African diaspora. Being shamed for the ways our bodies move, for whatever reason, is an assault on ancestry, culture and body autonomy. Reducing dance to a mimicry of or motivation for sex is a gross misinterpretation at best and misogyny in the form of the objectification and dehumanization of women at worst. There is no way to look at the video and determine the sexual histories or proclivities of the people in it. The way they danced did not provoke this kind of thinking. Adults are responsible for the sexualization of children and it can start in small ways. Look at the onesies that label babies as “sexy” and the like. Note the comments on baby pictures advising parents to get a gun, or predicting which infants will be heartbreakers. Who is really the problem?

Fear of Sexuality?

We are afraid of sexuality. This fear has held us back from necessary action. It has prevented parents from talking to their children about sex. It has locked schools and teachers into teaching abstinence only, knowing it is not realistic for everyone. It has made room for men and boys to wear their sexuality proudly and boast about sexual experiences while encouraging women to either be “pure” or pretend to be pure to avoid disparaging labels men and boys do not worry about wearing. Why can’t we acknowledge we are sexual beings? How can we all have sex, but pretend no one else does? Even for those among us who are not sexually active, is it impossible to be sexual? Do we think sexuality is specific to or limited to sex? Were there not women before us who celebrated their daughters’ first periods, and their own fertility? Did they never dance, without inhibition, in whichever ways the music moved them?

We have a problem with sexuality, and we are not the only ones.

This difficulty is tied to misogyny, homophobia and historical trauma. Until we, as adults, abandon our comfort zones of suppression and false superiority, we will not be able to raise sexually aware children who can assert themselves to practice body autonomy, seek consent, care for their bodies, and make healthy decisions for themselves. They don’t have to wait for fun days or dance competitions to express themselves sexually. Perhaps we should be more concerned about what we don’t see, all because we’ve taught them to be invisible.