The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has ruled in two of the most important constitutional cases that have engaged its attention in its ten-year history. The cases from Guyana have their origins in Guyana’s troubled political history and struggle for ethno-political dominance. In the first case the CCJ decided that the appointment by President Granger of the Chair of the Elections Commission on October 19, 2017, violated the Constitution. In the second case, it decided that the no confidence motion passed in the National Assembly on December 21, 2018, in a 33 to 32 vote, was lawful and valid.
President Granger declared that the Government accepted the decision but insisted that the appointment of the Chair of GECOM was not flawed, and if it was, the CCJ must let him know what the flaw is. The CCJ had already noted that President did not reveal what were the flaws in the 18 names presented to him by the Leader of the Opposition for appointment as Chair of the Elections Commission. In any event, courts do not respond to political interrogation, and it is the job of the Attorney General to advise His Excellency.
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.
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 meetings last week between the President and the Leader of the Opposition and the President and the Guyana Elections Commission, did not yield a solution to the impending constitutional crisis that has been dominating the news in recent weeks. Maybe the President and his Attorney General do not believe that a constitutional crisis faces Guyana on March 22. Both have said that according to article 106 of the Constitution, the President holds office until the next President is sworn in. They have purposefully ignored that a no confidence motion was passed in the National Assembly on December 21 and that the new president must be elected in three months, unless that time is extended by a two-third majority.
But this issue has now gone beyond what the constitution says and means. The President’s failure to fix a date for elections is because APNU+AFC intends to remain in office for as long as possible. This is aided by the majority on the Guyana Elections Commission who have voted, and will no doubt continue to support, a new registration exercise. A nation-wide, house-to-house, registration exercise will last into next year. If APNU+AFC’s effort to hold political power succeeds, it will hold elections between May and August next year, when its term of office would have otherwise lawfully ended. Having been caught flat-footed by the no confidence vote, it lost time, which it now seeks to unconstitutionally regain, to put systems in place to win the elections. This clearly is a matter of political life and death and explains the tenacity of its efforts.