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.”
The slow dismantling of Cheddi Jagan’s legacy of reasoned debate as a method of convincing opponents and educating supporters began at the turn of the century. It created the opening for the introduction of an alternative approach to political discourse – the cuss-down. Many had hoped that with the change in Government, this particularly degrading and offensive type of verbal assault would come to a welcome end. It was felt that necessity would dictate a change of course because it was believed that the cuss-down tactic caused the PPP to lose votes at the last elections. However, it appears to have been given a new lease of life at the rally at Babu John on March 3, in the name of Cheddi Jagan.
Cheddi Jagan always reserved his anger for systems and policies, not people. He fought against colonialism with the greatest zeal and the sharpest language, but never abused colonial officials and, in fact, worked with them between 1957 and 1964. He condemned imperialism not only in Guyana but worldwide. But he was unfailingly polite to its representatives. The same Cheddi Jagan proposed coalitions with the PNC and good relations with the United States throughout his life, never insulting or abusing their leaders.