At her swearing in as Chair of Gecom on July 29, 2019, Justice Claudette Singh said that she will follow the law. But what is the law? Elections by September 18? The Supreme Court certainly thought so. In order to correct misreporting in connection with preliminary deliberations in the matter of Christopher Ram v Chief Election Officer and others, the Supreme Court of Judicature Protocols and Communications Unit issued a Press Release on Wednesday 24 July which said: “The High Court confirmed that the Chief Justice (ag) stated that the consequential orders of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) indicate that elections should be held by September 18, 2019, or such longer period as the National Assembly determines.”
This view accords with the judgments of the CCJ in the consolidated appeals on the no confidence motion in which the CCJ gave its judgment on June 18 and consequential orders on July 12. In its July 12 decision the CCJ said: “Given the passage of the no confidence motion on 21 December 2018 a general election should have been held in Guyana by 21 March unless a two thirds majority in the National Assembly had resolved to extend that period. The National Assembly is yet to extend that period. The filing of the court proceedings in January challenging the validity of the no confidence vote effectively placed matters on pause, but this court rendered its decision on 18 June 2019.” No deconstruction of this statement is necessary to conclude that the CCJ is saying that time, which was paused by the court actions, began to run once again on 18 June 2019.
If elections are not held on or before September 18, as appears likely, the Government will fall over a constitutional precipice which is fast approaching. According to Vice President Khemraj Ramjattan, Minister of Public security, speaking on a podcast on Wednesday last, if the Gecom Chair advises the President that free and fair elections cannot be held without a new electoral list compiled by house to house registration, the President will have no choice but to fix a date for elections when it is estimated that registration is expected to be concluded. That date is December 25, according to Gecom’s lawyer, advising the CCJ.
In relation to whether elections will held on or before the due date of September 18, VP Ramjattan said on Wednesday last, “I doubt it, I seriously doubt it.” While VP Ramjattan stressed that it was his opinion, such an opinion coming from a Vice President of Guyana, even before a Chair of Gecom is appointed and forms an opinion on the list, carries great weight. When asked about the status of the Government after September 18, he said that the doctrine of necessity will apply so that the Government would be lawfully in power and its decisions would be lawful. Accordingly, any Government can deliberately refuse or fail to hold elections, claim the right to do so under the doctrine of necessity, and lawfully stay in office! Such twisted logic has sadly become part of the degenerated discourse on our constitution and its interpretation.
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.