Defamation laws remain a concern in Guyana – Reporters Without Borders

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Guyana’s position on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index has taken a hit this year and the reason why may lie in the reasoning given by Reporters Without Borders, as they once again draw attention to Guyana’s defamation laws and the way they can and have been used to muzzle the media.

According to the 2021 index, Guyana was ranked at 51 out of 180 countries, a drop compared to the 49th place ranking Guyana got last year. The index noted that Guyana’s global score of 26.63 from 2020 was reduced by 1.02.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) noted that Guyana’s Constitution provides protection for free speech and the right to information. However, they noted that legislation including defamation laws, which provide for fines and custodial sentences, have been implemented – and in the past used to censor journalists who criticise the sitting political party.

“Journalists have also faced harassment in the form of prosecutions, suspensions, and intimidation… because members of the media regulatory authority are appointed directly by the President.”

“This restricts the freedom of certain media outlets, which are denied licences. Recent attempts to improve regulation of the broadcast industry involved no consultation with any broadcasters,” Reporters Without Border said.

There have been calls for some time, including from the Guyana Press Association (GPA) for Guyana to amend the existing criminal defamation laws, to reflect globally accepted standards prevalent in democratic societies.

The situation has been compounded by legislation passed in the National Assembly by the former A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Government, including the contentious Cybercrime bill and the Broadcasting Act. And in recent times, criticism of officials from the former Government has been met with lawsuits.

It was only last week that former President David Granger, claiming that his reputation was tarnished, mounted a mammoth $2.6 billion lawsuit against three news entities – Guyana Times, Stabroek News, Kaieteur News, and Public Relations Specialist Christopher “Kit” Nascimento.

The 134-page Statement of Claim was filed by Granger’s lawyer, Roysdale Forde, SC, and lodged at the High Court in Georgetown.

In the lawsuit, Granger alleged that he was defamed in letters sent to the newspapers’ editors by Nascimento relating to the March 2020 General and Regional Elections and the events that unfolded after. Apart from the billion-dollar award for damages, Granger wants the court to grant him aggravated and exemplary damages, interest, costs, and any such further or other orders the court deems.

The lawsuit accuses Nascimento of launching and sustaining a series of defamatory attacks from March 2020 to August 2020 against Granger through opinion pieces that were published by the newspapers. According to Granger’s counsel, the attacks were “relentless and displayed a complete disregard for the truth”.

Granger had said the publications suggested that he was of unsound mind, a liar, involved in criminal and illegal activities and practices, and unfit to be the President of Guyana.

Nascimento, in an invited comment to this publication, had said he was standing by his remarks about the former Head of State.

“I am astonished at Mr Granger’s lawsuit. He certainly places an extraordinarily high price on what he believes to be his reputation. I am satisfied that anything I have written or said about Mr Granger was in defence of democracy and the freedom of Guyana,” the PR specialist had said.

There is also the existing case of defamation filed by former Junior Housing Minister Annette Ferguson, against now Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo. Ferguson had sued Jagdeo, as well as Guyana Times, back in 2020, over what she claimed were libellous statements pertaining to her acquisition of land and wealth.

A default judgement for $20 million was issued against Jagdeo back in March, following the failure to file a defence within the required time. That default judgement is currently being appealed. Ferguson also recently sued Labour Minister Joseph Hamilton for similar statements. [Guyana Times]