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.
October 5 will forever be remembered in the history of Guyana as the date when a short-lived democracy was restored. Our freedom was obtained on May 26, 1966. The period of formal democracy lasted from 1966, until 1968 when it was crushed by rigged elections.
The rigging of the 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 elections have been fully documented elsewhere. But the entire gamut of manipulative techniques was employed. Laws were passed that removed all but the formal powers of the Elections Commission and handed over the management of the elections to the Chief Elections Office. The free press was destroyed and Parliament unrepresentative. But opposition to the rigging of elections never subsided.
Contempt such as Ambassador Hardt is accused of in relation to the Head of State is a serious matter. In 1631, in one of the earliest reported cases of contempt, a prisoner, condemned for felony, threw a brick at the judge that narrowly missed. An indictment was there and then drawn against him, immediately upon which his right hand was cut off and fixed to the gallows. He was then taken and hanged in the presence of the Court. (‘The Due Process of Law’ by Lord Denning p. 5, courtesy of Mr. Siand Durjohn, in-service law student at Cameron & Shepherd).
Ambassador Hardt should therefore consider himself very lucky to get away with only what Dr. Luncheon described as a ‘feral blast’ by a ‘warrior.’ Feral indeed! As for being a ‘warrior,’ the United States itself may soon be in jeopardy with the number of warriors, the President included, in and around the Guyana Cabinet. Maybe we can live without the United States, but what if Guyana’s warriors declare war on all of its tormentors at the same time – the US, Canada, UK and the whole of Europe?
The controversy surrounding the issue of radio and cable licences by the last administration in its dying days, adopted and defended by this administration, is not going away. Apart from a tepid intervention suggesting that President Jagdeo was keeping a promise to open up the airwaves, the Government has made little attempt to launch a proactive defence of Dr. Jagdeo. The result is that there have been demonstrations, protests, statements, newspaper advertisements and more, decrying not only the manner and timing of the issue but the persons to whom the issue was made, alleging bias and nepotism. Some of the criticisms have been egregiously vilifying.
The reluctance of the Government to take on the critics of the licences issue is mystifying when contrasted with its vigorous support for Dr. Jagdeo’s comments on the resurgence of anti-Indian sentiments or the loud and sustained campaign in opposition to the Budget cuts. Admittedly the latter are far more immediate and impactful than the issue of the licences. But the muted defence of Dr. Jagdeo, muted despite the Attorney General’s belated claim that the licences have a fair ethnic and geographic spread, is still rather surprising having regard to the daily dose of demonization delivered by the press.
I should like to thank you for your invitation to deliver opening remarks to this the Third Conference of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana. This acknowledgement from you that I may have something of interest or value to say to the trade union movement, is indeed a great honour.
Among the material I consulted when preparing my remarks, is the speech of Brother Ashton Chase to the first Conference of FITUG in 2006. It is a most enlightening document, reverberating with history. A portion of the speech traces the formation and suspension of FITUG between 1988 and 1993, and its re-establishment in 2003. This history demonstrates that FITUG’s birth and growth were inevitable outcomes of the underlying interplay of politics, workers’ struggles and trade unionism, that have characterised our history as well that of many other Caribbean countries.