The legal adviser to the Elections Commission came in for some blistering, public, abuse by Commissioner Desmond Trotman, who referred to the young lawyer as practising ‘deceit.’ Apparently, the opinion she gave as to the law relating to registration of electors, was not to his liking, as it contradicted the position that he and his fellow Government-appointed Commissioners had been advocating. Ms. Excellence Dazell advised as follows: “I therefore advise that procedures be put in place to ensure the revision of the list, otherwise the Commission would be acting in defiance of the law….” Ms. Dazell argued that “based on (election laws), the list must be updated bi-annually by adding persons who are now qualified to be registered, to that list, and those who are no longer qualified to be registered, to be taken off that list….”
There are two laws that are mainly relevant to registration and elections. These are the National Registration Act and the Election Laws (Amendment) Act.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has already given a clear indication of its liberal and purposive attitude to constitutional interpretation in the Richardson case last year in which the constitutionality of the two-term presidential limit was challenged. Despite a majority Court of Appeal decision declaring the amendment to the Constitution limiting a President to two terms, and an apparently unassailable argument before the CCJ, supporting the Court of Appeal’s decision, the CCJ would have none of it. In a majority decision, it upheld the amendment thereby sparing Guyanese the potential of a life President, which the amendment was designed to prevent.
In the hearings last week, the two cases heard were the challenges to the appointment of the Chairman of the Elections Commission and to the validity of the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21 last which required the Government to call elections by March 21 but which it had steadfastly refused to do on the flimsy argument that it was awaiting rulings from the court.
It is generally accepted that Guyana endured a period of rigged elections between 1968 and 1985. The voters’ list was a critical element in the rigging throughout the entire period. The central counting of votes at one place in every region, which were completely sealed off by the military, facilitated the removal of the bottom from the wooden ballot boxes which were secured by nails. The boxes were then filled with a pre-determined number of fake ballots, although there was a limit to the number of such ballots that could be printed, marked with an X and inserted in the ballot boxes.
Thus, a multiplicity of schemes was devised. These included retaining on the voters’ list the names of persons who had died or migrated and padding the electoral list with fictitious names, impersonating and voting for persons who were legitimately on the list, securing proxies for employees from sympathetic or intimidated employers, postal votes and other devices. As these methods were exposed, different methods were rolled out at different elections. But a flawed electoral list was always a constant. That is why the elections due in 1990 was postponed for two years, by agreement with the then Opposition after an intense campaign, in order to conduct a new registration exercise for a new voters’ list.
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.