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.
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.”
President Granger last Friday said that “the Government is conducting its affairs in accordance with the Constitution and with respect for the rule of law.” He sought to convince the nation that it was the Speaker of the National Assembly who directed the Government’s approach to the court and that the cooperation of the Opposition is necessary for credible elections. He created a constitutional mandate for the Elections Commission in fixing a date for elections. He reiterated that the National Assembly is competent to extend the time for holding elections. The President said that there is no cause for “alarm or anxiety.” The Office of the Leader of the Opposition issued a statement contradicting the President’s assertions point by point. The President places the burden for resolving the crisis on everyone but himself and the Government.
Notwithstanding the President’s use of selected articles of the Constitution to justify his untenable views as to the current state of affairs, created by the Government’s failure to fix a date for elections before March 21, the Government becomes illegal on March 22. One of two things ought to have happened by March 21, namely, elections ought to have been held, or the life of the National Assembly extended. Neither occurred, despite the decision of the Chief Justice (ag) that elections have to be held in three months after December 21, the date of passage of the no confidence motion. The Government insists that it has a right to be heard in Court and in doing so, insists that it has a right to violate the Constitution while awaiting the Court’s verdict. President Granger blithely ignores the nation’s right to elections and relies on the invented veto which he has accorded to the Elections Commission.
The Chief Justice ruled that the no confidence motion was lawfully passed on December 21 in the National Assembly by a 33-32 vote, and that the vote of Charandass Persaud was lawful, notwithstanding that as a dual citizen he was unlawfully occupying his seat in the National Assembly. Consequent upon those findings, the Chief Justice ruled that the Cabinet automatically resigned on the passing of the no confidence motion. The Chief Justice granted neither a stay of execution nor a conservatory order which would have preserved the status quo ante. Yet the Government announced that the status quo remained and Government business will be conducted as usual.
This statement, disrespectful and defiant of the Chief Justice’s ruling, presumably means that the Cabinet will continue to meet and function and take decisions affecting the governance of Guyana, even though it is unlawful to do so. In effect, the Government’s functions must be limited to the implementation of existing decisions as no new ones can be made by the non-existent Cabinet. The statement also means that those Members of the National Assembly who hold dual citizenship will continue to occupy their seats even though the effect of the Chief Justice’s ruling in relation to CharrandassPersaud’s means that their membership is unlawful. Such bold, brazen and open defiance of lawful authority, of the Constitution and of the rule of law by a Government, have never been seen in Guyana after the Burnham era, or in the Commonwealth Caribbean, or in any democratic country for that matter.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland, having declined to reverse his declaration on December 21, 2018, that the no confidence motion against the Government had been carried on a vote of 33-32 in favour, has shifted the arena of contest to the Court.
The constitutional provisions which have been automatically triggered by the passage of the no confidence motion, by now well-known, state: “106(6) The Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by a vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence. (7) Notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months, or such longer period as the National Assembly shall by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the votes of all the elected members of the National Assembly determine, and shall resign after the President takes the oath of office following the election.”