Moderating the comments

| 18/08/2009

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, itis 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.


Note: This VP was first posted 23 April 2009 (hence the references to the elections) but we have more readers now, some of whom might not be aware of the moderating process. You can also read our Comment Policy.

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  1. Roger U says:

    I agree with every policy statement you make and I understand the reasons that you give for deleting comments that I may agree with, including one of my own a few weeks ago.

    However, I do wish you had a way of putting a curb on the anti expat comments that are becoming more prolific and more vitriolic. The degree of pure hate in some anti expat remarks is deeply disturbing and I suggest that in the UK you would be prevented from publishing them. If I were to write now that I find them so upsetting that I am thinking of leaving, you would be swamped with comments saying things like, "Good riddance" or, "Pi$$ Off You Loser."

    All expats are perceivedby some of your contributors to be here to take all they can and give nothing back. I think that I contribute a lot to the country and yes, I do get a lot back (Not financially. I could earn a lot more in the UK, Canada or the States) but I honestly do believe that I give more than I take.

    These unpleasant comments are all from people who don’t know me and have no idea of what I do here. I might be a surgeon for all they know and about to save the life of a loved one. I could just as easily be a minority shareholder in a business employing tens of Caymanians.

    Those comments are almost the definition of racism and I don’t think that you should publish them. They contribute nothing, ferment ill feeling and only cause unease.

    One final thought:

    Q  Who do you think set up and runs the Hospice which does such wonderful things for many families, including my own?

    Clue   It wasn’t Caymanians.

  2. Colleen says:

    I also want to share my gratitude for the opportunity to post comments. Half of the time I state I am anonymous, but I state my reasons in my letters (civil servant). Other times I have stated my name just to show that I am not afraid to state I care this much about an issue.

    This avenue does allow me an outlet to openly give my opinion or state tidbits that others may not know.  And by the number of comments received on a variety of articles, I feel comfortable other like-minded people are reading what I have to say. I also gain comfort reading comments of others CNS readers other than what I read in the print and radio. As an expat and civil servant, the words can be harsh, but I am comforted knowing there are others in this country who share the same vision and hopes for this land.

    Congratulations CNS…you’ve been doing a fabulous job!

  3. micheal western says:

    Love CNS comments section it help readers to express themselves with out fear and not to mention how fast you all get the news out.

  4. Freedom says:

    I admire CNS for being the sole news service provider that allows free speech and people to express their opinions – democracy is about freedom of expression. As noted too many are scared to say what they want due to the crabs in a bucket syndrome and because of who they know that will criticise their opinions and yes be threatened  by some ignorant, bitter people not willing to accept change therefore anonymity is required – creating a user name is one option.  If people do not feel they have a way to express themselves violence many times becomes the result. Any repressed society builds anger – so its great that CNS is channeling anger into a news service where people can express what they feel, be heard and feel they have that right – and it is a right no one should take away from them. Hopefully slowly people here will be free to express how they feel and others will be free from ignorance enough to listen to them with open minds.


  5. Problem Solver says:

    I understand that CNS has to protect themselves from lawsuits etc, that could happen as a result of posting certain things that could lead to that.  That is understandable.

    However, i strongly believe that when it comes to civilians commenting on persons that have authority positions over civilians, that it is better off for these officials to listen even if the comments are nasty, false or filled with rage.

    When there is a problem with people rising up against these officials, then there is a problem and it needs to be resolved.

    Unfortunately, alot of times the problems are not resolved because the officials don’t really care about the people.

    Any good leader and problem solver knows that it isbest to listen attentively to all of the negative things said or shouted against them, as to figure out a way to solve the problem.

    Unfortunately, hypocrisy, pride and ego gets in the way alot of times, and the problems go unsolved and the people remain angry and resentful over it, which can only lead to further problems.

    True problem solvers will not quit until the problem is solved.  Probably what we really need is more true problem solvers to be in authority positions over civilians, instead of officials who don’t really care about solving the problem?

    From a problem solver.

  6. anon1 says:

    CNS does an exemplary job of editing posts where necessary yet allowing readers to post their opinions and I applaud you for this.

    I also acknowledge that it is a thankless job and someone who is edited may accuse you of sensorship, however someone posting annonymously (like myself) ahould have the decency to appreciate the difficult job you have in allowing us this forum that none of the printed press affords us.

    Disgruntled public figures should appreciate that this site often allows them to hear opinions that mey not be flattering to a particular position they have adapted. A wise public figure would at the same time welcone to oppurtunity to hear a different view of one of their supporters that does not necessarily agree with theirs and hopefully use this different opinion to tenper and shape their own stance.

    Last but not least, CNS should not feel discredited by the print media that claim to only publish commentary from readers who sign their own names to their letters. It is obvious from the Justice Levers case that this is not always the case or that  they even verify who is signing whose name to the letters they publish. To change your polocy now will be "cutting off your nose to spite (or placate) your face.

    Thank you again CNS for the oppurtunity to anonymously say my piece.

  7. John Meghoo says:

    I have never researched civil service speech restrictions and how they stand up (or not) in other jurisdictions, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out under our new Bill of Rights, when that finally takes effect.

    You have quite a job moderating your comments, and credit is due to you for that. 

    And, for the first time, I will not comment anonymously, even though my comment  is a rather benign one (at least I think it is).