In English law, fair comment on a matter of public interest is allowed. Generally, it guarantees the freedom of the press to make statements on matters of public interest, as long as the statements are not made with ill-will, spite, or with intent to harm the subject of the comment. For decades, English courts have placed a higher burden on public figures to prove defamation, which includes both libel and slander. This is based on the view that if a person chooses public activity, that person must expect a higher degree of public scrutiny. For example, it is hardly likely that an English court will countenance a defamatory intent against a public figure where an allegation of conflict of interest is made on facts which are essentially true but could be capable of a more generous interpretation.
Fair comment is an ancient common law (judge made law) defence. But it was replaced in the Unites States in 1964 by a defence created in the case of New York Times v Sullivan in which the US Supreme Court decided that actual malice has to be proved to establish defamation. Since it is very difficult to prove actual malice in a journalist or a politician in the cut and thrust of journalism or politics, public life in the US has been largely liberated from the fear of defamation. While the defence of fair comment remained in the U.K. it was increasingly found to be too restrictive for adequate scrutiny of public officials. The courts of the UK have never adopted New York Times v Sullivan but began to test a more liberal approach to criticisms of public officials.
Challenges to transparency in Government have attracted public comment in the past two weeks. I make no allegation or judgment on recent events since they are based only on newspaper reports. But apart from these recent matters, allegations of corruption and nepotism are to be expected in the absence of strict and enforceable rules, which have been promised by the Government. These challenges have been occurring since Guyana gained its Independence and will continue until Governments take steps to enforce transparency and accountability.
There is clearly no across the board political appetite for steps to curb corruption and nepotism. The PPP/C came to office in 1992 with one of its major promises being the elimination of corruption. It brought auditor general’s reports, which had been lagging for seven years up to date. It established a more transparent system of procurement. It implemented the Integrity Commission. However, in the ensuing twenty years, with the vast increase in public and infrastructure spending, corruption escalated to unimaginable proportions in every sphere of society. It became possible to grease palms to speed up or obtain services. Whatever the reason, so sensitive was the PPP/C Government to allegations of corruption, that when I described it as ‘pervasive’ in 2012 and called for additional steps to deal with it, I was severely attacked and forced to resign.
Many Guyanese are in despair arising out of the political deadlock and the failure of our politicians to resolve it. Many understand that relying only on the judiciary can only result in winners and losers. One round of the perpetual ethno-political competition would be over with the completion of the court proceedings. Whatever the outcome, the next round would come with the elections, whether held this year or next year. In this sense, the decision of the CCJ will solve nothing that is fundamental to the reality of Guyana’s existence and its challenges.
Whatever the CCJ’s decision and whenever the elections are held, Guyana’s problems will remain and would be no nearer to a solution. The economic slowdown will persist, poverty and unemployment will continue to increase, a high crime rate will perhaps get worse, corruption will grow by leaps and bounds and the ethno-political contest, an important driver of most of the above, will be no nearer to a solution.
As is now well known, the Constitution makes no distinction between a ‘simple’ and an ‘absolute’ majority. It refers only to ‘majority.’ But the Court of Appeal ruled that such a distinction exists and under Article 106(6) an absolute majority of 34 out of 65 is required for the passage of a no confidence motion. It defined an absolute majority as half plus one. For a 65-member National Assembly, half is 32½. Since there is no half person, then 32½ has to be rounded up to 33. Then adding one will make an absolute majority of 34.
The Constitution recognizes only a ‘majority’ and a ‘vote of not less than two-third ,’ or the ‘support of not less than two-thirds.’ It does not use the word ‘majority’ when describing the two-third vote, as set out below. Article 168(1) provides that: “Save as otherwise provided by this Constitution, all questions proposed for decision in the National Assembly shall be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present and voting.”
Miles Greeves Fitzpatrick was born on the 12th January, 1936. His parents were the late Maxwell and Millicent Fitzpatrick. He was the brother of the late Eileen Bhola, the husband of Sultana Fitzpatrick, the father of Ron Garry Fitzpatrick and the grandfather of Zoe and Michael. He passed on the 12th March, 2019, at the age of 83, after a short period of declining health but during which he remained engaged and lively. I joined a few mutual friends, his family and some relatives at his home in celebration of his 83rd birthday in January.
Miles was born in Queenstown, Georgetown and attended Queen’s College. After High School, he graduated as a lawyer in 1956 and was called to the British Guiana Bar in January, 1957, following the footsteps of his father, who was a Solicitor and Magistrate. He entered private practice and joined the Peoples’ Progressive Party, an unusual step for a product of the Georgetown middle class. He was active in politics in the pre-Independence 1960s.