GRENADA: Libel Case Sends 'Chilling Signal', Groups Warn

  • by Peter Richards (st george's)
  • Friday, October 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

But since its establishment in 1990, the weekly newspaper had been a thorn in the side of the Keith Mitchell administration, convinced that it was corrupt and should be publically exposed.

Detractors of the former prime minister point to United States court records that show at least 10 people who had investment dealings with Grenada in recent years have been convicted and are now serving jail terms on various fraud-related charges.

But the High Court and indeed the Court of Appeal found that the paper, with a circulation running into a few thousand of a population of 90,739, had gone overboard in 2001 when it published a letter from a reader containing disparaging remarks about the then prime minister.

The High Court awarded Mitchell compensation totalling 44,692 dollars in 2003, but the matter Court of Appeal increased the judgment to 71,135 dollars, inclusive of costs.

'All I am seeking is justice for being slandered for literally 13 to 14 years consistently,' Mitchell told reporters this week.

'I have said to people over and over that in the past 13 years if you check the editorials of Grenada Today, 90 percent of them have been concentrated on attacking one man and slandering me consistently,' he said.

Mitchell said the lawsuit was solely aimed at protecting his name, and that he wanted make it clear that he had no quarrel with the paper's editor and publisher, George Worme.

'But at the same time I have a responsibility to protect my own name and I assume that George Worme and anybody else would want to do precisely this,' he added.

In an editorial published in April 2008 that commented on the libel case, the newspaper said that it was convinced that Mitchell was bent on fulfilling 'an objective to try and close down the publication for exposing his many shady dealings'.

'Grenada Today wish to inform all and sundry that the paper has options at its disposal in combating the latest move by the desperate Keith Mitchell to try and close it down. This newspaper is not losing any sleep over this latest attempt by Mitchell to try and put out our light as part of his known hostility to the free and independent press in the country,' the editorial said.

Now, almost two years after he was voted out of office, Mitchell has gone to the courts to collect payment of the award.

High Court judge Claire Henry had given the parties until Tuesday this week to reach a settlement, but attorney Anslem Couden said he had hoped that the former prime minister would have taken 'the high moral ground and say to us, make a donation to charity'.

Mitchell was unmoved, and the judge had no choice but to appoint a liquidator to wind up the operations of the paper, one of five weeklies in the small Caribbean island, putting nine employees out of work.

Former attorney general Dr. Francis Alexis said he was disappointed at the closure of the newspaper, describing it as a 'sad chapter' in the history of the island. He said the closure is a tragic reminder that the constitutional guarantee to freedom of expression is not absolute.

The Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG) said while it was 'in no way questioning the High Court ruling or targeting any person within the judiciary' its primary concern is the 'unfortunate circumstance of a veteran colleague whose newspaper has had a strong record in investigative journalism'.

'Worme and his Grenada Today newspaper must be recognised for their role in breaking and reporting on many stories which served the public's interest, and which many were afraid to tackle for various reasons,' MWAG said in a statement.

'We note that the claimant in this case more than 10 years ago was a signatory to the Chapultepec Declaration, an international accord guaranteeing press freedom and generally facilitating and accommodating the role of the press,' the group added.

The Declaration was adopted by the Hemisphere Conference on Free Speech held in Mexico in March 1994. Its guiding principles state that 'a free press enables societies to resolve their conflicts, promote their well-being and protect their liberty. No law or act of government may limit freedom of expression or of the press, whatever the medium.'

The regional Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) have both expressed concern and disappointment at the demise of the publication.

'While we believe citizens should retain the right to seek civil redress on matters of defamation, we are of the opinion that penalties should neither be disproportionate nor excessive. We are aware in several international jurisdictions this principle is being seriously contemplated,' the ACM said.

'We are also concerned the judgment can produce a 'chilling effect' on free expression not only in Grenada but elsewhere in the Caribbean region,' said the ACM, while RWB called on the Grenadian government to introduce legislation limiting the amount of money persons can claim for damages from the media.

'Grenada Today's liquidation is bad news for media diversity and, above all, a very bad precedent for the resolution of disputes linked to press offences,' RWB said, noting that 'regardless of the substance of the case, it highlights the disproportionate nature of damages awards that threaten the survival of the publication concerned.'

RWB said that the lawsuit against Grenada Today 'is very similar to the kind of lawsuit specifically designed to intimidate and silence critics that is referred to in English-speaking countries as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP'. 'It usually takes the form of a defamation action carried out with the aim of forcing the target, a news media or NGO, to either fold or retract because mounting legal costs or the threat of a ruinous damages award. Reporters Without Borders supports the principle of anti-SLAPP legislation.'

Worme has said he is now exploring a number of options available to him, including the launch of a new newspaper.

'Since the events have unfolded, I have been approached by several different people who are interested in forming a new newspaper and they have approached me to be associated with them. I am giving consideration to my options,' Worme told reporters.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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