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.
One of the reasons behind public executions in the past and at present was and is to demonstrate the power of the State so that citizens would be duly intimidated. Public executions have largely disappeared. The growth of democracy has forced the development of more sophisticated methods of state intimidation, even though the gory spectacle remains in a few countries with significant democratic deficits and is pursued b a few terrorist groups, particularly ISIS.
The State machinery, particularly its enforcement arms, are theoretically and practically the major instruments of State control and enforcement. A more insidious form of State intimidation and oppression is the use of the press. Guyana has experienced starting from the late 1960s, the use of the privately owned press to inflame passions against the PPP Government, to misreport the news, to distort the truth and to encourage violence. The privately owned press was one of the main instruments in the struggle against the PPP Government. I am not familiar with the history of the press before this period. But I am sure it did its utmost to support the colonial authorities to intimidate persons and organisations who resisted the powers of the State, in particular the organized and unorganized workers’ movements.
On December 29 the Attorney General’s Chambers issued a statement asserting that the lease that had been granted to the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre (CJRC) in connection with the property in Kingston, Georgetown, known as ‘Red House,’ was invalid. Extensive reasons were given as the basis for that conclusion. On the following day a statement by Mr. Anil Nandlall, a prominent and well-respected lawyer and former Attorney General, was published. It was an equally extensive statement with a detailed legal analysis challenging the conclusions of the statement of the Attorney General’s Chambers.
In the meantime, on the evening of December 29, a statement from the Ministry of the Presidency informed the public that the President had revoked the lease on the basis of the advice given by the Attorney General’s Chambers and had given the CJRC 48 hours to vacate the premises. The CJRC had occupied the premises for about fifteen years and had accumulated a vast amount of material. Even trespassers are given longer periods to vacate premises by courts. In law, the period given must be reasonable. 48 hours could not be reasonable under any circumstances.
The frightening reality is that the race for the presidency in the US is so close, and getting so much closer, that Donald Trump may well win the presidency. On Monday evening the two contenders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have their first debate so as to give the American people a further opportunity to decide which candidate to support. While there is a large number of undecided or independent voters that each candidate will seek to win over, each faces specific hurdles which need to be overcome in order to ensure victory in the elections.
Hillary Clinton is struggling to attain a knockout punch because, having been hounded by the press for over twenty years, compounded by lapses in judgment, she faces skepticism in a part of the electorate. ‘Untrustworthiness’ of her has flourished because of her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State. Even though there is no evidence that she treated with confidential material, apologized and previous secretaries of state have conducted official business by private email, the Republicans and the US media have been unrelenting in their criticisms and allegations of ‘lies.’
It takes a certain mindset for a person to believe that he or she has the right to determine what information, otherwise lawful, that the citizens of Guyana should receive. Inculcated among some media practitioners and political operatives during the 1970s and 1980s, and pursued with vigour and venom between 2001 and 2015, this mindset is clearly alive and well in Guyana. State-owned media has long been seen as a party asset to be utilized for the benefit of the Government and Party in office.
Given the opportunity to reject censorship, the Guyana Chronicle did the opposite. In justifying its failure to publish its own columnist, Dr. David Hinds, because it did not agree with the views he expressed on two occasions, it embarked on a paean to censorship in its editorial of April 20 entitled “The state newspaper.” It reiterated an earlier statement that “this newspaper is an arm of the state and will give primacy to the government’s agenda.” How is this different to the policy of the Chronicle during the eras mentioned above? The Chronicle is not an arm of the State. The State is merely a trustee of its owners who are the people of Guyana. I am a part owner of the Chronicle.