A bold brief

Stabroek News
July 9, 1998

In an interesting address to the journalism symposium at Ocean View on June 20, 1998 Mr Ralph Ramkarran S.C., touching on the topic of contempt of court, said journalists have an important role to play in constructively criticising the judiciary, the administration of justice and the legal profession. "I urge journalists to shake off their fears and boldly go where no journalist has gone before. Our sentences for serious offences, particularly manslaughter, are far too low. Judges and the Director of Public Prosecutions accept manslaughter pleas in murder cases where they ought not to do so. Journalists should deal with these issues."

Senior counsel went on to advise that there is "absolutely nothing wrong with criticising the decisions of judges and magistrates" provided they are not libeled. He noted that a book had been written on the famous English jurist, Lord Denning, which analysed his decisions to demonstrate that he was biased against minorities, women and trade unions. "Journalists should therefore have no fear and must move forward from the stage of reporting to the stage of critically reporting."

Indeed our newspaper receives several letters criticising the intemperate behaviour on the bench of certain magistrates and the wide variations in and apparent arbitrariness of certain sentences. We have called more than once for sentencing guidelines to be prepared by the Chancellor after due consultation. But the bigger point made by Mr Ramkarran is well taken. There is certainly more scope for commenting on some of the decisions of our courts and we will keep this in mind.

Mr Ramkarran goes on to urge that those who aspire to political office and place their character on the line (while maligning their opponents) "must not be accorded the right to complain when his or her fitness for office is challenged." This is a clear statement of principle in favour of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Sullivan v New York Times which broadly holds that public figures, which includes politicians, cannot succeed in libel actions unless they can prove malice, that is that the words were published knowing them to be false or without any effort to check. It has been argued in our courts that this principle can and should be applied here given our explicit constitutional protection for free speech. This step has not yet been taken but it is good to know that someone as senior as Mr Ramkarran in both the political and legal fields holds such progressive views. Our own history of libel cases filed by politicians in an earlier era is much less encouraging. It is more than time for the courts to redress the balance and to take a more robust attitude to public speech. Mr Ramkarran notes, as he is entitled to, that though much maligned senior members of his party have never had recourse to actions for defamation. It is a proud record.

Mr Ramkarran went on to call for a code of ethics for media personnel. Given recent transgressions few will oppose this. The Guyana Press Association should take steps to prepare a draft for discussion by journalists. There are many precedents available.