Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Censorship from the Chambers

The Zinc Fence let out its top dogs this week. The owners of KREM radio (known as the South Side Belize City station "baka da zinc fence") were called into court in a little-known litigation that has been boiling between the owners of the upstart media company and the owners of a company called Sagis. Both sides presented their last arguments in a case between KREM owned by Evan X Hyde and his associates, and Sagis, a company controlled by
Michael Ashcroft's BB Holdings, which also controls Belize Bank and Belize's government backed telecommunications company, Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL).

Defendants' counsel Michael Young argued that the transfer of the shares to Sagis back in the early 1990's had not been proper because the entire board had never consented to a transfer, and the individual shareholders, KREM founder Evan X Hyde and activist Rufus X, had only understood the transfer as a pledge of collateral in exchange for a loan. In addition, rather than turn over the 10% share, the KREM shareholders had already offered to pay the value of the shares (over $250,0000 from an initial investment of some $100,000) to Sagis. Counsel for Sagis, an attorney of color who Sagis flew in from England, argued that the sale of the shares had occurred over 13 years ago and that Sagis had every right to cash in now.

Sagis' demand came (perhaps fortuitously for Michael Ashcroft whose business connections to major financial transactions via the Belize Bank put him squarely in the center of the public debate) in the midst of a national uproar and calls for the PUP to step down. In the pre-election year, scandal after scandal were dredged up and debated: a $33 million defaulted loan by Belize Bank to government-backed Universal Health Services, questionable lending practices and development projects by the Development Finance Corporation, the diversion of dollars earmarked by the Social Security Administration, the transfer of millions of dollars worth of government land to PUP cronies, to name a few. (For most recent, devastating financial scandal, please take a minute to read this article in the Economist

So in Spring 2007 when the litigation was brewing, listenership was at an all- time high on KREM's Wake Up Belize WUB morning talk show. With their reputation for being outspoken and their listener call-in format, WUB was swept up in the center of a political cyclone.

The corporate law issues are somewhat complex, and complexity tends to favor the big business owner. But from a citizen's point of view the equities in the case are on KREM's side. Sagis waited almost fifteen years to demand its share of the company, and even when KREM insisted that the demand came too late, and offered to pay the value of the shares, Sagis refused and the litigation continued. What is it that the owners of Sagis needed to defend so badly? Why is it so urgent that they continue to pursue this case?

Even if the owners of Sagis are not malicious, they can't avoid the appearance of impropriety and desperation that come from a monopoly trying to defend its empire. and we can't avoid the ultimate price we will pay for not fighting to change the model for business and development in Belize - real and virtual censorship, and a complete lack of public debate.

From the sight of the crowd in the courtroom, surely Krem-Amandala's motto "Power to the People," rings even louder than usual for some of its listeners this week.