Moderating the comments

| 23/04/2009

One of the most glaring impediments to progress in the Cayman Islands is the fact that large sections of society feel intimidated about speaking publicly on issues, and this is never so apparent as during election time.

A few years ago, both local newspapers decided to insist that letter writers give their names and contact details. CNS has on several occasions been urged to adopt the same policy but I do not feel that the Cayman Islands is ready for this while recriminations – real or perceived – for weighing in on the issues of the day exist.

To start with, free speech is denied to civil servants, who are expressly forbidden to show support for a particular candidate, or to make public their views on candidates or political issues. Most people living here on a work permit, as well as business owners who depend on work permit holders, are allowed to voice their opinions but nevertheless are reluctant to do so, believing that their livelihoods would be threatened, and whether their fears are legitimate or not is less relevant than the fact that their voices are silenced.

Many residents are unwilling to draw criticism by identifying themselves in what is still a small community, and in some cases fear actual physical harm. An exchange on one thread by single mothers expressing their fears about the rising violence for themselves and their children was particularly poignant, and was yet another conformation that a platform in which people can write freely and anonymously is much needed in these islands.

On the other hand, while free speech is a cherished right in any democracy, it is never without some qualifiers, and every country that sees itself as democratic must try to find a balance between free speech and other rights, such as the right not to be the target of hate speech, discrimination, defamation of character, etc. (See this New York Times article about the different approaches to this in the US, Europe and Canada)

However, without any laws in the Cayman Islands governing hate speech or discrimination, the threat of a libel suit appears to be the only restriction as to what is published in the media. Therefore, it is up to the individual media houses to determine what is acceptable and what is not.

Which brings me to the comments on CNS and how they are moderated. Our comment policy is posted here. However, it probably needs a little elaboration, not to mention the opportunity for readers to comment on the policy and its application.

As the policy says, a comment that is made by someone who has the courage to put their name to it has much greater impact and we encourage those who really care about the Cayman Islands to stand up for what they believe in. Still, for all the reasons listed above, most people comment anonymously, Sadly, when people are brave enough to use their own name they are often rewarded with some pretty nasty responses. Therefore, following a discussion with Twyla, one of our most frequent commenters, we have developed a new rule: you can disagree with people who identify themselves … but be nice, especially if you hide behind anonymity.

Occasionally we get comments that cross the line in some parts but are otherwise interesting. In these cases I replace the offending sections with “XXXXXXX” instead of deleting the whole thing. Comments written in bold, which somehow suggests that it is more important than other comments, are changed to normal, and comments written with the caps lock on, which is annoying, are generally just deleted. Otherwise, comments are not edited and spelling and grammar are left as they are written. If a comment is unintelligible – the litmus test; I read it twice and have no clue what it means – it is deleted. Strangely, a lot of comments posted late Friday or Saturday night fall into this category.

By running for public office, politicians and would-be politicians open themselves up to greater scrutiny than other citizens, but as we get closer to election time and emotions start to run high, deciding what is legitimate opinion or dissent and where to draw the line is often a hard decision. Added to this, as a few people have noted, some comments supposedly written by regular CNS readers may in fact be written by the campaigns themselves. And while, if true, this is reprehensible, it is impossible to prove and hard to eliminate. Nevertheless, I have deleted some anonymous comments that seem ridiculously puerile, that anonymously accuse candidates or incumbents of corruption, or if I feel fairly certain that it was “planted”.

Public figures – a difficult term to define in such a small community – are legitimate subjects of public dialogue, especially if they accept a large salary from the public purse. Given the perception that some high level government positions are filled for reasons other than merit or that sometimes foreigners are given senior civil service jobs that could be filled locally, a free public discussion of senior appointments and their performance is justified. But just as the line between opinion and insult can be hard to pinpoint, so too can the difference between information and gossip, and whether I have always made the right decision is likely also open for debate.

When it comes to crime, moderating the comments can be particularly difficult. For one thing, people always seem to know more than the police have released. However, if the police ask us not to post such comments I comply with the request, at least until that information is made public.

Suspects of high profile crimes are always reviled in comments, but however damning the evidence appears to be (and whatever people believe to the contrary) people are innocent until proven guilty under the law and I cannot approve comments that assume their guilt – though some of them are heartbreaking in their grief and the writers have my fullest sympathy. I would ask people to word their comments carefully at such times. Comments about the victims or the victims’ families are sometimes deleted just because they seem to be unduly hurtful to people who are already suffering.

If I could make one request to those posting comments – if you are unwilling to use your real name it would be helpful to give yourself a “user name”, since arguments between a bunch of people who sign themselves “Anonymous” can get confusing.

Public dialogue is an essential part of the democratic process and the CNS comments seem to have become an important tool for debate between the people who live here. Perhaps the proportion of commenters who use their real name as opposed to those who remain afraid to do so can become a gauge of the progress freedom of expression in the Cayman Islands.
 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Viewpoint

Comments (18)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Anonymous says:

    Congrats CNS, best local on line news agency since Caypolitics. 

    Could do with some minor imporovements but can’t we all?

    Thanks much for the service you provide.  You are simply the best new s organization in the Cayman Islands.  Atleast we do have to listen to you talk and talk and blow your own horn.  We actually have a voice.

    Have you also considered getting a radio license (for a good talk show)?

    CNS: Thanks. We have lots of ideas and we’re improving the site all the time. No immediate plans for a radio licence.

  2. Anonymous says:

    CNS ROCKS!!!!!

  3. Speaker of the House says:

    Nicky, I would like to use "Speaker of the House" as my official name on this website. Is there a way from preventing someone else from using the same pysudonym?

    Your CNS is outstanding in its news reporting, commentaries and of course allowing readers to ‘vent’ by posting our comments.

    You have very quickly become the trusted source of news in the Cayman Islands and I wish to highly commend you and your very small team for doing an amazing job.

    Long live, Cayman News Service, Nicky, Wendy and their support staff.

    CNS: Update – We have been asked by a former Speaker of the House (a real one) if we could ask people to not use this particular pseudonym (or the related Madam Speaker) as readers will inevitably think it is one of those who have formerly held the position. Thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I LOVE CNS and the work that Nicky does!

    When I want up to date news and know what’s going on and how the public feels about issues affecting my country! This is where I come to get up to date!

    KEEP UP THE GREAT JOB NICKY! You can’t please ’em all no matter how hard you try!

  5. Frequent Flyer says:

    Nicky, nice. Well done. Didn’t realize you were involved.

    Once I heard about CNS, I became a daily fan. I now know who to blame when I fall behind in my work…

    Thank you!!

  6. noname says:

    Thanks for allowing civil servants to still have some platform from which to "speak."

    Viva CNS!

  7. Twyla M Vargas says:

    CAYMAN NEWS SERVICE

    To me this is the BEST news service on Cayman.  You get the news hot off the press, and acurate.   The best thing that I like about Cayman News Service, is that they do not favour anyone person.   If they feel your comments aint worth the time they just Bump you off.

    I strongly support their moto, if you want to openly critize an issue, or disagree go right ahead and be anonymous.  But if you are going into name calling and slander I say sign your name.  Put your money where your mouth is.

    Cayman News Service, I say stay on track with that,  then people will stick to the issues at hand and not to the person.  Blessed

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think you guys do a pretty good job.  Back home I wrote letters to the editor all the time with my name affixed.  Not here.  No way. 

    At home, I could write the papers and say what I felt, disagree with half the people or even express an opinion that NO ONE else liked, and I would not:

    1. have my permit renewal denied without reason;

    2. be spoken to by my employer about creating a public nuisance;

    3. receive a call from my landlord ‘axing’ me not to be so outspoken if I wanted to renew my lease;

    4. have to worry about my children being confronted about what I said at school.

    This is not really a democracy and it is not really a place that knows that true freedom of expression is essential for the true expression of freedom. Until Cayman’s people (note I did not say Caymanians) realize that a person’s right to speak their mind is far more important than what they say, this will not be a place where everyone can affix their name to what they say. 

    Go back to requiring people’s names for publication of comments and you might as well not publish anything at all.  Keep up the good work.

    • Anonymous says:

      To: Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/22/2009 – 21:29.

      I can’t comment on the personal antics of your employer or landlord but I can say that as a matter of law you are entitled to reasons for the non-renewal of your permit. If the reasons were not contained in the decision letter then by filing an appeal (pending which you can continue to work)detailed reasons would have to be produced otherwise the decision to refuse would be quashed.  

      You see we are indeed a democracy.

      • Anonymous says:

        RE: "You see we are indeed a democracy."

        I disagree.  A democracy doesn’t disenfranchise half it’s population, make eligibility for membership in the legislature dependent on some arcane test for connection with the country, and impose a timeline of 20 years for citizenship. 

        Go to Immigration for help?  That’s laughable.  When a person’s right to stay here is managed by the vested interests of a local gossip network and grinds to a halt daily for three coffee breaks and two hour lunches, the process of having one’s permit renewed is a question of arbitrary discretion and impenetrable bureaucracy. 

        Let’s face reality – a phone call to your brother’s sister’s cousin at immigration and a card on her birthday will allow you to persuade immigration to revoke the permit of that mean old accounting supervisor at work, or get his PR application turned down.  The law allows such things to be in the discretion of the immigration officers and the process for appealing them is in the hands of their managers at immigration; they will almost always back their own people, which puts justice outside the hands of everyone except the top earning CEO’s and Managers on-island. 

         

        • Anonymous says:

          "A democracy doesn’t disenfranchise half it’s population, make eligibility for membership in the legislature dependent on some arcane test for connection with the country, and impose a timeline of 20 years for citizenship".

          You are ignoring the fact that more than 1/2 the population are transient workers and have no permanent stake in this country. Political rights are attached to citizenship. These are not citizens. 

          Every country requires special connection rules to hold high public office. The President of the United States is required to have been born an American Citizen. Naturalized Citizens are not eligible. They also usually prohibit dual nationality.

          Not sure where you got the 20 years from. After 8 years you are eligible for permanent residence after which you apply to be naturalized and then obtain Caymanian status.   

          "Go to Immigration for help?  That’s laughable.  When a person’s right to stay here is managed by the vested interests of a local gossip network and grinds to a halt daily for three coffee breaks and two hour lunches, the process of having one’s permit renewed is a question of arbitrary discretion and impenetrable bureaucracy". 

          That is demonstrably false. It reflects only your own corrupt imagination. This is a country subject to the rule of law. 

          As for inpenetrable bureaucracy you clearly have not noticed two important aspects of transparency: (1) the Complaints Commissioner who has been quite effective; and (2) the new Freedom of Information Law which brings forth relevations regularly.

          "The law allows such things to be in the discretion of the immigration officers and the process for appealing them is in the hands of their managers at immigration; they will almost always back their own people".

          That is also false. Full work permits are granted by the Work Permit Board and Appeals are made the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. Both apply the requirements of the Immigration Law and not simply some arbitrary discretion. They are required to apply the rules of natural justice so that complaints against anyone must be disclosed to the person complained against and they must be given an opportunity to respond.  The number of appeals granted is considerable. Actually the opposite of what you say is true. Persons with no actual grounds of appeal clog up the system because they can continue to work pending the appeal.  

          Sir, since you clearly harbour such contempt and resentment against Cayman and Caymanians why stay? You are clearly a very bitter, unhappy person. If I were living in such a hell I would catch the first flight out. 

           

          • Anonymous9 says:

            Lucky lucky you to never have been affected by the above posters issues.

            You live a charmed life

  9. John Evans says:

    Good piece Nicky but……

    "A few years ago, both local newspapers decided to insist that letter writers give their names and contact details."

    The problem is that my former employer, who claims to have pioneered this move towards openness, failed to implement any measures to verify the true identity of contributors.

    There is a huge difference between the concept that no letters are published ‘name and address supplied’ and the publication of what are effectively anonymous letters under false names simply to satisfy the requirement that all contributors have an identity.

    In many ways the CNS approach is the most honest way of tackling the problem, with the internet (and I go back to days when letters to newspapers were all mailed or handed in) it is virtually impossible to prevent people using false IDs. 

    Careful monitoring and admitting that the writer’s identity is ‘unverified’ is, in my opinion, a better option than printing potentially defamatory comments attributed to blatantly false names.

  10. Chris Randall says:

    Despite the explanation above, I would still prefer that commentators be required to afix their real names, which you could verify by cross-referencing the telephone directory or voters register.  I assume that as contributors are required to enter their e-mail addresses you do, in fact, know who everyone is anyway.

    It would be easier to follow the various comments if they were listed with the latest at the bottom; i.e. in a coherent sequence as the comments were made following the relevant article.   One naturally reads the article and then the comments by scrolling down, but when comments refer to earlier comments they do not make sense when read in this reverse order.

    CNS: Chris, there’s no requirement to enter an email address, just an option, so no, we don’t know who everyone is. There may be a way of responding to particular comments so it makes more sense…but that’s on a fairly long list of improvements to make to the site. Soon come. Having the last comments at the end wouldn’t work when there are a lot of them.

     

  11. Expat867 says:

    I know what you mean about perceived problems expressing views. 

    [Content deleted by thought police]

    Thanks for letting me ventilate all that.

     

  12. Impressed says:

    Another bouquet…

    Thank you for the concise explanation of your policy. I am amazed as to how much time and energy must go into moderating these comments and would like to commend you on a job well done, just like Mr Hawk, not a real name I guess…

    I do have one question about the order of the posts, as I seem to have a hard time follong the posters’ train of thought sometimes, is it me, or are the comments not listed in chronological order? Perhaps it would be easier if people did use the User name instead of anonymous.

    Incidentally, I was going to put my name with this post, but decided against it, as I want to add that I too feel uncomfortable putting my name on a post, without having anything agressive, abrasive or subversive to say!

    Strange place we live in, but you gotta love it for its quirks!

    Kudos to the report on the WB forum which I sadly missed, but felt like I was there after reading your article. Excellent job, news-hounds, keep it up!

    CNS: Many thanks for the kudos. The posts are in the order they are written (most recent at the top) but sometimes when they are approved in batches it might seem as though they are out of step. User names would certianly help.

    • Anonymous says:

      Pleased to find out about the postings order thing. I too was a bit puzzled, but just thought I was too thick to figure it out. I feel considerably better about myself now. Thanks!

       
  13. Tomma Hawk says:

    Ms. Watson, your explanation seems to be very "thorough and impartial" for posters to comment on-line.

    It would be nice to get more people commenting locally on your "Headlines" which I find to be delivered in real time and accurate. I have adopted the notion that when I hear "Big News" on the street, if CNS isn’t carrying it on their website, then it’s probably false. I have found this to be the case on numerous occasions.

    I often comment to others about your informative website and most people I speak to, agree that they visit your website quite often and participate in the blogs.

    May I suggest to attract a wider audience, consider erecting a "CNS News Banner Advert " as it somtimes done with other adverts at the entrance/exit of West Bay next to the cemetery and another somewhere in the area of Hurley’s at Grand harbour, for maximum exposure.

    Your staff at CNS do a fabulous job. Long Live CNS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!