Sunday, August 07, 2005

Chicken calypso lawsuit

Chicken Case Goes to Caribbean Court

By PHILIP SPOONER, Associated Press WriterSun Aug 7, 2:44 PM ET

Sixteen years ago, allegations that a farm was supplying questionable chickens to restaurants inspired a flurry of biting calypso songs.

Memories of the "Barbados chicken controversy" still provoke chuckles among locals, but the furor died down and never resonated much off this Caribbean island.

That's about to change.

A libel suit by the farm's owners on Monday will be the unlikely first case to go before a regional appeals court set up to replace the colonial-era Privy Council in faraway London as the final legal arbiter for most former British territories in the Caribbean.

At the same time, the case carries important implications for free speech, and some people worry it could threaten the traditional role of "calypsonians" as the region's political satirists.

The plaintiffs, Ram and Asha Mirchandani, contend the scathing calypso songs forced them to close their farm in 1990 even though allegations by some employees that they were selling sick chickens never were proven.

In 1999, they won a judgment against Barbados Rediffusion, one of the radio stations that played the satirical songs, but the couple has not been awarded damages as the case is appealed.

On Monday, the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice will decide whether to consider the radio station's final attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed. The nine-judge panel has not disclosed when it will rule.

The hearing will offer the first glimpse at the workings of the court, which opened in April but so far has been formally adopted by only Barbados and Guyana as their final appeals tribunal. Other members of the 16-nation Caribbean Community are wrestling with legal obstacles or resistance from critics, who fear the court could be vulnerable to political pressure.

The push for the court arose when Britain's Privy Council began blocking attempts to impose the death penalty in the 1990s, angering people across the Caribbean fearful about a surge in violent crime as their islands became transit points for drug trafficking.

But while the court grew out of worries about criminals, its first case is a test of free speech.

Afro-Caribbean calypso music evolved in Trinidad as a means of spreading news — and of denouncing corruption and other problems. Calypsonians often were the target of censorship during British colonial rule.

"They function like lampoonists," said Gordon Rohlehr, a literature professor at the University of the West Indies who has written about the role of calypso. "The calypsonians are regarded as the people who sniff out the truth and who tell you what the man on the street thinks."

Attorneys for the Mirchandanis and the radio station declined to discuss the chicken controversy, which erupted in 1989 during carnival, a time when calypsonians traditionally debut their most acidic lyrics.

Several employees of the MacDonald Chicken Farm accused the Mirchandanis of processing and selling chickens that had died of illnesses. An explosion of calypso songs about questionable chicken meat flooded the airwaves, while carnival revelers donned chicken costumes or T-shirts with rude slogans about the couple's farm.

"I was concentrating on highlighting the way people were feeling at the time," said Mighty Gabby, Barbados' most venerated calypsonian. "The issue was to voice the people's opinion, not to hurt."

His song on the controversy, "Chicken and Ram," carried lyrics veiled enough that it was one of the few chicken calypsos that radio stations did not drop when the Mirchandanis filed their lawsuit.

Calypsonians say libel judgments involving their music will have a chilling effect on creativity.

"On 'Saturday Night Live,' in the United States, their performers do some things that we can't even think about doing here in Barbados," said Peter Boyce, a performer with the five-member calypso and comedy troupe MADD, whose "Madd Chicken Song" was among those banned because of the lawsuit.

"We need laws that allow for more freedom of expression."

Rohlehr isn't so sure. He believes the threat of censorship and lawsuits has inspired the veiled imagery and double-entendre that make for the best calypso songs.

A victory for the Mirchandanis might "simply make for better and more clever songs," he said.


Associated Press reporters Alexandra Olson in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Bert Wilkinson in Georgetown, Guyana, contributed to this report.

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