Kaieteur News’ Editor-in-Chief and one of the newspaper’s reporters were yesterday fined for contempt over the publication of a report that resulted in a murder trial being aborted in the High Court.
Editor-in-Chief Adam Harris was ordered by Justice Brassington Reynolds to pay a $150,000 fine (equivalent to half a month’s salary) with an alternative of 14 days imprisonment and reporter Rehanna Ramsay was ordered to pay $50,000 (equivalent to one month’s salary) with an alternative of seven days imprisonment. They were given 24 hours to pay the fines but ensured that payments were made within an hour of the case ending.
“I trust that the message would go across,” Justice Reynolds said after imposing the fines.
The offending report, which was published in the June 27th edition of the Kaieteur News, made reference to a voir dire in the trial of Andrew Gomes, who is accused of murdering his father on November 27, 2008.
When a voir dire (trial within a trial) is being heard, the jury is absent from the courtroom and whatever is said during those proceedings cannot be reported in the media in any form. The offending article contained, among other things, comments made during the voir dire.
The judge aborted the trial on Thursday after the article was brought to his attention and he summoned both Harris and Ramsay to show cause why they should not be held for contempt.
The matter was set for 9:30 am yesterday and when the case was called at the designated time both were present in court.
Justice Reynolds stated that in the interest of justice, he had no choice but to abort the proceedings just before he had to rule on a voir dire. He noted that while the media has a role to play in exercising the right of freedom of information, reporters must make it their duty to attend court every day.
He stressed that “more care” ought to be taken to ensure that there is no disclosure of information that could compromise the proceedings. Referring to the case at hand, he said that there was not just recklessness in reporting what occurred during the trial but that the reporter “went on to report facts.”
Justice Reynolds said that both the defence and the prosecution were very upset with what was reported as there were facts that could prejudice both sides. It was for this reason that he summoned both the editor and reporter to show cause why they should not be dealt with condignly.
“The quality control of what hits the press has to be that of the editor,” the judge noted, while saying that this is the person who has to address him.
Attorney Khemraj Ramjattan, who appeared for Harris and Ramsay, noted that the reporter has been a freelancer for about three to four years but “solidly at Kaieteur News for one year now. “I regard that as a junior reporter,” he said.
Ramjattan added that Ramsay attended court and thought that what was going on was in relation to a ruling that was going to happen the next day in the trial. According to him, she did her report and handed it in to Harris, who indicated that he felt that it was proper to go to print, having not realised that a voir dire was being done.
Justice Reynolds at this point added that whoever does the court beat must be sufficiently steeped in the court procedures and sufficiently grounded to know what is happening. “There is so much riding in these things. The person (reporter) cannot be an inexperienced person,” he said, while adding that it is the editors who have to do the “quality control.”
Ramjattan then indicated to the court that Harris accepted wrongdoing and had done a full front page explanation on the issue.
“I am glad that you recognise the full scope of what the law allows the court to do in these circumstances,” the judge said. He noted that the slippage made was reprehensible and that it had occurred the week before.