Trinidad and Tobago netizens did a virtual facepalm this week when it was revealed via a tweet from a journalist that the country's president, Anthony Carmona, had issued a legal letter intended to bar local entertainer Rachel Price from making fun of the first lady's fashion sense.
Her Excellency Reema Carmona was roundly criticised by many for her choice of outfit at the Fashion for Development event last month, during the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The selection of a thick tan belt worn over a black dress gave the illusion – at least in photographs – of a bare midriff. Many thought it inappropriate for an event which the first lady attended in her official capacity, and some still maintain that there was no belt at all.
Trinidad and Tobago is a country reputed for its picong — satirical banter that is not only part of every Trinbagonian's arsenal of repartee, but which has historically been the foundation of countless calypsoes that provide critical social commentary. In this context, the president's move came as a surprise and opened the head of state up to even more criticism.
In his inaugural speech, Carmona famously made the point that the Office of the President “is not impotent”:
I do want to emphasise […] that I am not an Executive President. Under the Westminster form of governance, there are parameters within which I must operate. Powers you think I have… I do not. Powers you think I do not have… I do.
The speech made waves; people hoped to see less rubberstamping and more action when it came to matters of public concern. Rachel Price's jabs seemed trivial in comparison to pressing national issues, and netizens said as much via memes and on Twitter. The focus quickly shifted from the first lady's wardrobe…
…to the president's defense of her:
— Corie (@cobojack) October 21, 2014
Hold on! President Carmona speaks out on @RACHELPRICETT discussing his wife's attire but says NOTHING ON THE CONSTITUTION?!? Oh. Ok.
— Nyssa Pierre (@kneezurr) October 21, 2014
@RACHELPRICETT thx eh! This must be the most wuk De man do since he in office!
— Anisha Joseph-Ashton (@anishajoe) October 22, 2014
Other Twitter users couldn't understand why Price was singled out, considering that so many — both on social and in mainstream media — were talking about it:
Rachael @RACHELPRICETT is not the only one who talked about it the whole country talked and still talking wat she had on was disgraceful
— Tiffany John (@johntiffany25) October 22, 2014
@RACHELPRICETT they vex because u say what everybody else was silently saying! All of a sudden he have voice!
— Crystal's Touch (@crysmcphe) October 22, 2014
Some suggested the move was an attack on freedom of speech:
@RACHELPRICETT what a Democratic country this is, when our citizens are not allowed freedom of speech!!!! 1st world status here we come
— jamie thorpe (@jthorpe91) October 22, 2014
— Bradley (@Imsilentone) October 22, 2014
There were those who stood firmly in defense of the first lady and her right to wear whatever she chooses. Fashion designer Robert Young thought the reaction to Mrs. Carmona's outfit was “sexist and filled with internalized colonialism.” He made the point that fashion is a cultural phenomenon, saying, “Bellies are shown all over the world. The late Indira Gandhi must have shown her's.” (sic)
From the president's perspective, the issue is that his office considers Price's statements — though it isn't clear which ones — defamatory. Price has reportedly been promoting a comedy show at which she promises to target the first lady's attire, but it is not known if the letter refers to this or other comments. Public relations expert Dennise Demming felt that the president's response to Price was a bit like “using a hatchet where a scalpel is needed”, saying that he has only succeeded in “dignify[ing] poor humour and improv[ing] her popularity.”
It is also being debated whether the Office of the President should even be party to the legal action, since defamation cases can only involve individuals. At an address he gave at the 2014 Presentation of Graduates at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, the president likened Price's comments to cyber-bullying, telling graduates that social media websites had degenerated from “performing an envisaged function of creating a positive communication link among friends, family and professionals” to “a veritable battleground, where insults fly from the human quiver, damaging lives, destroying self-esteem and a person’s sense of self-worth.”
I real tired of all this shit about office and reputation. Go and do some real work and get a reputation! Dignity of which office? Any office in Trinidad and Tobago have any dignity? We taking way people dignity every day in Magistrates Court, and police shooting them dead, and Kamla [Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister] and all of them could fock all who they want but they keeping laws against bulling on the books, and Wayne Kublalsingh is a reptile […] And you want to preserve the dignity of you office??? And is not even like I feel Rachel Price right to spend so much time ponging a next woman for wearing a dress. Reema and she belly could wear whatever the kissmearse she want. But when you in public office you must take picong and pong and grin and wave. Else do not stand up next to Mrs. Ban on my tax dollar.
At Wired868, a site known for its political satire, Mr. Live Wire was all over the issue like fabric draped over a mannequin:
The late President ANR Robinson often challenged a sitting Prime Minister on matters that he felt ran contrary to the spirit of the constitution and abused the trust of the nation.
The current President is more like the dude who goes to a fete with his lady half-dressed and then wants to fight anyone he catches looking.
Some Facebook users thought the whole affair was a case of — as Trinidadians say — “do so don't like so”, reminding netizens of a similar lawsuit that was filed 11 years ago. On that occasion, Price was the one issuing the legal letter to radio talk show host Ricardo “Gladiator” Welch for libel and slander. Welch counter-sued and Price eventually dropped the lawsuit.
This time, it appears that Price isn't backing down. She commented on her radio show:
This is a democracy and if I can’t talk about the President’s wife belly that was in meh eye, then something very wrong…Yuh damn right, I doh know meh place. But I know meh citizenship. I mightn’t know meh place but yuh know meh home. This is Trinidad and Tobago.