Orette Fisher, electoral consultant and former director of elections, last week pitched a solution to the problem of flags and other paraphernalia which remain in constituencies after an election period.

Sharing that he has observed elections in a number of jurisdictions, Fisher said that in 99 per cent of them, the colouring of the space is also a part of the elections.

“But what is done in those jurisdictions is that the local authority has the responsibility to clean up afterwards. For us, I think it’s one of two things: either after the elections, the local authorities must go through and clean up all the areas, or political parties are required to put a fund together, and if they don’t remove the flags, then the fund is used to take them down,” he said.

“It cannot just be left for the political ombudsman to be hitting away and asking, asking. Something has to be in place that would allow for it to be enforced,” Fisher said at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s downtown Kingston head offices last Thursday.

CURTAILING FREE EXPRESSION

Senior lecturer in the Department of Government at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Dr Christopher Charles, pointed out that in Jamaica, if you want to mount something on a utility pole, there are established procedures through the parish council to do so.

“We do not encourage political parties to apply to mount these flags. All we hear is that you can’t put up a flag. That is curtailing people’s right to free expression,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with mounting a political flag of any colour as long as the person gets approval.”

Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown agreed that where people have a permit, it should not be an issue once they put up and remove the flags in the appropriate time frame.

“What keeps coming to me is that I live in ‘Community X’, and when I got home this evening, there were flags all along the place, also on my gate post or my light post and I feel like I’m being intimidated … . This is a problem,” the ombudsman explained.

Parchment Brown said there needs to be amendments to the Town and Country Planning Act, which speaks to putting up all forms of advertisements, to specify the duty, considering that local government is also run by politicians.

“In addition, I think there should be included in the code, under the Political Ombudsman Interim Act, fines for breach. So if you’re to take it down within, for example, 30 days, there’s the campaign period that’s defined in the law and so if you have it up outside of the campaign period, there should be a fine,” she said.

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com

A call has been made for the Office of the Political Ombudsman (OPO) to hold orientation classes and refresher courses for individuals preparing to run for political seats to mitigate some of the utterances made on the platform.

Orette Fisher, former director of elections, made the call during a recent Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s North Street offices in Kingston, while making the point that improper and uncomplimentary utterances from the political podium provided enough evidence that schooling was necessary.

Fisher said he believed it was imperative that newcomers be taught lessons in proper political behaviour, and especially about the provisions of the Representation of the People’s Act and the Political Code of Conduct.

“I think there should be a system where when new caretakers are appointed, that they are required, or be mandated, to meet with the political ombudsman. You don’t wait until they are in the heat of battle, but from they are appointed, and they are instructed on the Political Code of Conduct,” Fisher said.

He was disagreeing with University of the West Indies’ senior lecturer Dr Christopher Charles, a forum panellist, who is of the view that the OPO, by instituting an investigation, was trespassing on the right to free speech by politicians, even if it was untrue but not libellous, defamatory or inciting of violence.

Charles was making reference to a recent utterance by Manchester North West Member of Parliament Mikael Phillips during a constituency conference in August.

Phillips, who had made a divisive remark about supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party, suggesting that none of that party’s members should feel comfortable in the constituency, later apologised for the comments after a public backlash.

Fisher, too, believed an investigation was not the jurisdiction of the OPO, but said it was important that political ‘lessons’ are taught.

“Candidates and caretakers are subject to change from time to time. So this is something that should be considered,” Fisher said.

He was supported by University of the West Indies student youth leader David Salmon, who was also a panellist.

Salmon said it was important that such classes are held, especially for politicians active on social media.

“We must make the demarcation between freedom of speech and responsible speech … . We have to see that, as people who agree that elections should be conducted in a responsible way, then you need to set a standard for the way people express themselves,” argued Salmon.

“I do believe that for persons interested in public office, there should be sessions done by the Political Ombudsman’s office, in terms of what is and what is not acceptable (speech). They need to know that they don’t need to use certain language to express themselves, because there are young people who are interested in the process, and are mindful of what is said,” Salmon told the forum.

He did not believe the (investigation) by the political ombudsman was an encroachment on freedom of speech.

“Responsible speech has to be the priority,” he stated.

Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment-Brown said her office looks to the leaders of the political parties to set the tone for political best practices.

“They are expected to be the primary purveyors, promoters, and activists in support of good governance, the rule of law and a clean democracy in Jamaica. I look to the prime minister and leader of the opposition to speak positively of the institution, to actively encourage their members to understand the rules and to make their members available when we request them for classes, for meetings, for fora, so that they may strengthen their internal democracies,” urged Parchment-Brown.

Her office was available to provide the information, she said.

Meanwhile, she defended her office’s decision to ‘investigate Phillips’ comment, which she said was in keeping with code eight of the Political Code of Conduct.

While being of the view that the office was not intended to deal with internal politics, she said it “might” be covered as members of parliament and councillors and caretakers are bound by the code. The office is in contact with the leadership of the PNP and concerns have been raised regarding Phillips’ comments.

I would like to respond to Paul Clarke’s story ‘Ombudsman’s office threatening free speech, says social scientist’ ( Gleaner, September 30, 2019) and clarify what the political ombudsman does and how it does it.

As the political ombudsman for Jamaica, I absolutely support freedom of speech.

It is the laws of Jamaica and the Agreement and Declaration on Political Conduct that stipulate what utterances breach the broad span of this freedom.

In most modern democracies, including our own, the right to say something is always to be balanced against the effect of the words on a particular audience. While the physical expression of the partisanship of yesteryear is no longer virulent here in Jamaica, harmful words proliferate in political space and social media. The current situations in the United States and the United Kingdom offer a cautionary tale about political rhetoric and potential harm to individuals, groups and our democracies.

That is why we have a parliamentary commission, the Office of the Political Ombudsman, and a Code of Conduct which both parties have signed to ensure standards in politics. The fourth principle of the code is devoted to public utterances, proscribing party officials from making statements that are inflammatory or likely to incite others to confrontation, defamatory, or malicious in reference to opposing candidates, their families and party officials.

So it is not just any utterance, but also the context in which it is delivered and understood. That is what my office investigates. We do so in a way that follows the Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act and the laws of Jamaica.

Discussion of differences of opinion in the public space between state, civil society, politicians and media is vital for a democratic society. May the conversation continue!

DONNA PARCHMENT BROWN
Political Ombudsman
politicalombudsman@yahoo.com

Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown has made a plea for more resources to be given to the office she has held since November 2015.

“I have a communications adviser, she is a volunteer given to me by a foreign country [for six months]. That post was not in the establishment when the office was established, and those are some of the resources that we are fighting to get. In the last by-elections (Portland Eastern, in April), there was a complaint that there was so much negative on social media and [that] I have the resources to deal with that. I do not have the resources to deal with that,” she said at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last Thursday.

She said that the Organisation of American States observed the 2016 general elections and described the office as a good initiative that could be modelled elsewhere.

“It’s a tiny staff. The ombudsman is supported by two administrative staff and three support staff. There is space to hire an attorney; the investigator is also in the establishment. I will be hiring an attorney as soon as possible,” she said.

Parchment Brown believes that it is also her role to improve public education about the office and to reduce the perception that it is only active during elections.

“In the budget, I will be putting in a request for a communications capability within the office and funding for a number of events in the public space, funding for paid advertising in the media, and I’ll also be going to the media for PSAs (public service announcements). We want to be able to develop professional material that’s out there so people understand that it’s a 24/7 matter to build a decent country,” the ombudsman explained.

Former Director of Elections Orette Fisher asserted that with political parties now registered under the Political Party Registration Act 2014, the ombudsman’s office needs to be expanded.

“I am of the view that the office does not have jurisdiction over internal election. I think that the office of the ombudsman could be strengthened in that regard to provide jurisdiction because I don’t think the parties should be held to any lesser standard, than what obtains for a national election. I think they should be held to the same standard and therefore, any suggestions of vote-buying or treating should be open to some form of investigation for the party to remain registered, he said.”

University of the West Indies student David Salmon, the youngest of the panellists at the forum, suggested that the political code of conduct carry greater penalties.

Currently, offences with liability on conviction for breaches of the code in the parish court is a modest $50,000 or six months imprisonment, or both.

“The office should be expanded to include an investigative branch that can eventually make recommendations to the DPP director of public prosecutions) for prosecution. That is where we need to go – we need to empower the office so that it can be effective in its mandate,” Salmon asserted.

Fisher sided with Salmon: “The mechanism to investigate some of these things is just not there, and so I think it would be an opportunity for strengthening the electoral process.”

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com

The idea and practice of vote buying is nothing new to the political landscape in Jamaica, but former director of elections, Orette Fisher, said the practice has got worst over the years.

“I don’t think vote buying has morphed, I think it has worsened. What used to happen still continues but it has evolved. When I was a child growing up, politicians used to give people things like flour and so on, but people are demanding more expensive things now for their vote,” Fisher shared at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last week at the media house’s North Street, Kingston, office.

In 2011, a study was done across Jamaica by anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle, which revealed that there was evidence of vote buying in almost all of the constituencies they canvassed. It also showed that the poorer constituencies were easier to entice.

“Money is definitely a factor in this practice, and sometimes it is done in such a way that it is difficult for you to pinpoint and say that is vote buying. For instance, assisting somebody to get to the polling station with cash, is that trying to influence the person’s vote? There are some real questions that must be asked,” said Fisher.

PEOPLE FEAR FOR THEIR LIVES

Political ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown said she would prefer it be called bribery rather than vote buying.

“Sometimes I do road work, sometimes I deliver black tanks, and sometimes I’m delivering chicken feed – all of these would be an attempt to influence the outcome. The question is, if bribery is an offence, whose job is it to determine so?” she said.

“For example, in direct bribery, where I have had somebody come in and give a statement, I have given that statement to the police to investigate. But here’s the thing, we are living in a country where 66 per cent of people say they have no freedom of political expression, where they fear criminal threats.

“For instance, we see the JUTC (Jamaica Urban Transit Company) taxi situation, which crippled the country for days, so when I make a report to the ombudsman, and she makes a report to the police, am I really going to go to the level where I am in court with John Brown? The fact is that people fear for their lives.”

carlene.davis@gleanerjm.com

Office of the Political Ombudsman Launches Website

The Office of the Political Ombudsman officially launched its website on Thursday (April 11), which offers various features to encourage greater public engagement with the office.

The website, created by the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) adds to the entity’s already existing online presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Visitors to www.opo.gov.jm will be able to get news, notices and alerts, information about political code of conduct signings, elections and pieces of legislation.

“Users will also be able to upload videos and participate in meaningful discussions on important topics,” Political Ombudsman, Donna Parchment Brown told JIS News.

She said the website will serve to “provide visitors with an easier way to interact with the office and provide information, which is easily accessible.” Persons will be able to register a complaint anonymously.

Mrs. Parchment Brown noted that the website addresses issues such as “defamation, which is becoming more prevalent in the digital space… vilification of opponents, fake news and a general deterioration in public discourse.”

“Our democracy will benefit from your interaction with this site,” she noted.

Assistant Executive Director at the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica, Karlene Salmon, who addressed the website launch, commended Mrs. Parchment Brown on undertaking the initiative.

She noted that the website will boost communication and engagement, which will help to further good governance.

“Communication and information are the blood and oxygen of a vibrant democracy,” she said.

The Office of the Political Ombudsman, which was established under an Act of Parliament in 2002, has statutory responsibility to oversee and investigate adherence to Jamaica’s Code of Political Conduct.

The office conducts investigations into allegations of political breaches, and hosts regular discourse on matters such as political campaigning, de-garrisonisation, women’s participation in politics, good governance, among others.

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown has written to Prime Minister Andrew Holness about reports and observations of what she describes as “egregious conduct” by the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in the Portland Eastern constituency race.

In a letter dated today, Parchment Brown said she made a number of observations during a visit to the constituency on Friday.

She said this includes: a campaign billboard for the JLPs potential candidate Ann Marie Vaz, located within the borders of Western Portland; and the Nonsuch playing field project authorised under the tenure of deceased Member of parliament Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, reportedly being taken over and partly financed by Vaz.

The political ombudsman said she has also observed and or received reports of road works in several communities in the constituency, which have not been approved by the relevant government agencies.

She has recommended that the billboard be removed immediately and that the road works be stopped.

The letter makes reference to a number of other complaints and observations against the ruling party.

Alphea Saunders

The Hon. Donna Parchment Brown, CD. JP, Jamaica’s Political Ombudsman.

“My duty as of today is to help political candidates to fulfill their individual and organizational aspirations through adherence of law and rules of engagement to which they will give their pledge.

I stand ready to be an advocate, mediator and arbitrator for safe conduct of Jamaica’s elections and to promote as far as possible the respectful positive presentation of the candidates to Jamaica.

Chief Justice I take this moment to salute you the president and all members of the judicial branch, thank you for the dedicated service to Jamaica. I know your commitment to justice reform and delivery of a high standard of justice for all.

I salute the office of the parliamentary council, the legal reform department, the office of the director of public prosecutions, the attorney general’s department who along so many entities in the justice sector including the dispute resolution foundation, contribute with and through the ministry of justice to our national well-being; I wish you all the best.

We thank all our development partners and our diaspora for their kind interest and support for Jamaica and we know they will be looking at us as we go through this process of being a democracy.

To the JCF and to the JDF, I depend on you, as does all of Jamaica to serve and protect and reassure without fear or favor so that all of Jamaica may have confidence in all of your actions and in our sense of safety.

To the justices of the peace, thank you for the privilege of being your custos even for a short time.”

Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown - file photo RJR
The Office of the Political Ombudsman says it has received a formal complaint of vote buying in Portland Eastern, which it is investigating.
Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown would not say the source of the complaint.
She told RJR News she is interviewing persons in relation to the matter, and while it is unlikely to that a perpetrator will be found before Thursday’s by-election, the investigations will continue after the polls to ensure the same problems can be avoided for future elections.
Mrs Parchment Brown said she is hoping electors will be allowed to go out freely on Thursday to vote in the by-election.
She reiterated that vote buying and vote selling are a breach of the law.
She also called for transport operators in the constituency to make themselves available to “help the electorate get freely and safely to the polling stations so they can exercise their hard-won franchise to vote in an election in Jamaica.”

Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown is calling on the JLP’s Annmarie Vaz to instruct her campaign team and contributors to desist from conducting unauthorized works in public facilities in East Portland.

In a statement just moments ago, Mrs. Parchment Brown, raised concerns about certain projects being carried out in the constituency in the run up to the April 4 by-election. She says projects that began in 2018 under the Constituency Development Fund, CDF or Tourism Product Development Company, TPDCO, are allegedly being reported as being carried out by the JLP’s prospective candidate.

Mrs. Parchment Brown also points to projects being undertaken on public roadways where the contractor is reportedly doing the work as a contribution to the JLP’s candidate-elect without receiving the required permits. She is calling on Mrs. Vaz to instruct those campaigning on her behalf to cease such unauthorized activity.

Mrs. Parchment Brown is also calling on both prospective candidates and their surrogates to avoid public utterances which may breach the political code of conduct.

The Political Ombudsman says allegations have been received from both political parties regarding such utterances. This Friday will be Nomination Day for the April 4 by-election in East Portland.