To the sounds of Buju Banton and the echoes of the Wismar and Sun Chapman massacres, Guyana celebrates it 53rdIndependence Anniversary. Our political and economic future are as uncertain as they were 53 years ago. Guyana’s emergence from authoritarian rule in 1992 was not only a major landmark in its post-Independence history. The promises at the time were of “the dawn of a new era” and of “winner does not take all” politics. in the midst of economic reforms that promised a better life and the emergence of this newspaper that presaged freedom of expression, anticipation was high. After 27 years, half of our life as an Independent nation, hopes have been dashed. Our people have been kept in thrall to the logic of ethno-politics. No one now believes that either the APNU+AFC coalition or the PPP/C, by themselves, whichever is returned to office, has any intention of allowing this nation to unshackle the chains of domination politics.
Guyana’s political scene is thankfully uncomplicated by the ideological and political divisions sweeping many countries today, causing uncertainty and concern. But we do not live on an island and international developments do influence our views. This newspaper in its editorial yesterday high–lightedthe drift to “Europe’s illiberal future” in its editorial. The USA has already gone that way under Trump, who equated neo-fascists with anti-fascists, saying that there are good people on both sides. Australia’s right wing government has been unexpectedly returned to office. Boris Johnson, Trump’s buddy in the UK, Boris Johnson, may win the leadership of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, a neo-fascist outfit, is expected to win the UK-European Union elections. While these developments do not directly affect us, we cannot wholly eliminate potentially negative influences. They can lead todevelopments here by encouraging a hard line against the compromises that may be necessary to effect changes.
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.
A scathing editorial in the Kaieteur News last Friday shockingly castigated Members of Parliament in most unparliamentary language, from which the headline is taken. Here is another sample: “In some respects what Guyana has is not a legislative body, but a Roach Motel overflowing with a cast of creepy characters, a real life Bates Motel horror of shocks that frightens the public. It is obvious that the great majority of members have little by way of shame or nonnegotiable moral imperatives. This is a set of people paid well to perform and deliver the crass and the cheap. They like being the way they are. They do not prepare, do no research, have no pride. They falsify, they exaggerate, they dissemble and all the while revel with their fellows in what has been reduced to a brawling parliamentary slum. They care neither about the image projected nor the impressions left.”
Some time ago I explored in an article the issue of brawling in parliaments around the world during which, invariably, members are injured by fists, objects and missiles, including furniture, hurled from one side to the other. I discovered that misbehavior, especially by the opposition, plays well back home. Supporters of opposition parties who do not normally get their way, either become angry or frustrated, or both, and explode in apparent rage. Sometimes the reverse occurs where government members are the primary offenders.
Sex and politics intersected in an explosive controversy that has gripped the United States as Professor Christine Blasey Ford gave evidence last Thursday to the United States Senate about a sexual assault perpetrated against her in the summer of 1982 by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, on the US Supreme Court.
The Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee of the US Senate initially refused to hear Professor Blasey Ford. However, public pressure forced the Judiciary Committee to reopen the hearing.
The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, issued an invitation to President Granger to debate race, in the context of which political party in government has done more for African Guyanese. The immediate issue was the rejection by the casting vote of the Chairman of the Elections Commission of Vishnu Persaud as Deputy Chief Elections Officer, which the Leader of the Opposition described as ‘unfair.’ The issue spawned accusations and counter accusations of racial discrimination.
The KN reported on Mr’ Jagdeo’s challenge as follows: “I am prepared to debate race relations and which party has contributed to worsening race relations in Guyana. I can talk to him (President Granger) about this fallacy and the myth that they keep perpetuating that they have done more for Afro-Guyanese than the PPP…” He stated that he is prepared to match the record of the People’s National Congress between 1964 and 1992, and then from 2015 to present as against the PPP’s 23 years in office… According to Jagdeo, the debate can be on several grounds, including employment practices, access to wealth, land and businesses… “I am sure that you will see a pattern with Afro-Guyanese having fared better in that period under the PPP than ever under the PNC rule. I am prepared to debate that openly.”