GAWU loses libel action against Ramjattan over PPP funding claim

-but says vindicated by judge’s decision

The sugar union, GAWU in April lost a libel claim against former AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan over his allegation in September, 2008 that the union was funnelling money to the PPP/C.

Though the union lost the case it drew comfort from Justice Nareshwar Harnanan’s decision that no evidence had ever been presented to the court by Ramjattan, now Minister of Public Security,  to substantiate such claims.

The judgment had been brought to public notice by the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) in a letter to Stabroek News castigating Ramjattan. 

Referencing a section of a statement issued in May by the Alliance for Change (AFC) following its National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, GAWU noted that Ramjattan, who is also Chairman of the AFC announced that he had been victorious in the case.

GAWU’s General Secretary Seepaul Narine, by whom the letter to the Editor was sent, noted that the AFC-issued statement went on by saying that Ramjattan said that the judgment vindicates … “the position that indeed large sums of monies in membership dues were being received by GAWU and that significant portions of these monies were channeled elsewhere.”

Justice Harnanan did, however, point out in his ruling that no evidence had ever been presented by Ramjattan to substantiate such claims.  The AFC statement on the case was therefore false but has not been corrected.

The libel action was brought by GAWU (the plaintiff) against Ramjattan and DTV Channel 8 (the defendants) over statements Ramjattan had made on a televised broadcast back in 2008.

In its statement of claim,  GAWU said that the now Minister had said that the GAWU was giving monies to the PPP.

According to Narine, the Union at the time denied outright what it called the spurious claims, seeking from both Ramjattan and DTV Channel 8 an apology and retraction of the statement.

Following the refusal of either to so do, however, Narine said that the Union commenced legal proceedings.

Referencing the April 19, 2018 ruling of Justice Harnanan, Narine said the judgment is “poles apart” from what appeared in the statement issued by the AFC.

One of the passages extracted by GAWU from the judgment was of the judge saying among other things, that Ramjattan could not present into evidence, “any truth of the words that the plaintiff union made a percentage contribution to the PPP.”

Also quoted from the ruling by GAWU was “this court is prepared to hold that there was no evidence before the court which suggested that the plaintiff union makes any financial contribution or donation or otherwise to the PPP.”

“This stands in complete contrast to the AFC statement,” Narine pointed out in his letter to the Editor.

Also highlighted from the ruling was the judge’s pronouncement that the statements uttered by the 1st defendant (Ramjattan) were irresponsible, indifferent and without any foundational bases, and being a member of the legal profession ought to have heightened his concern for making public statements which are capable of being verified or corroborated.”

Just after this declaration was made, however, the judge went on to add, “but again, there is no admissible evidence before the court that the statements imputed that the plaintiff union was involved in an unlawful or illegal act, or that the

effect of the words lowered the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking

members of the society.”

Noting that any commentator may be able to offer constructive criticism of a Union in its operation as workers’ representatives, and the adequacy of that representation, the judge said, “There is no evidence that the words used by the 1st defendant put the plaintiff in any jeopardy of, or being shunned by members or societygenerally.”

Mouthful

Acknowledging that the court did not find favour with the GAWU’s demand for damages, its General Secretary said, “the judgment says a mouthful,” while noting that the Union is in the process of contemplating its next move.  Advancing that the judgment is “vastly different” from what the AFC statement claimed, Narine says it “rather serves to vindicate the GAWU.”

Narine’s letter then continued by questioning whether Ramjattan was “misinformed, whether he knowingly hoodwinked his party or whether the AFC is engaged in publishing untruths.”

“Whatever may be the case, and more so the motivations, the GAWU hopes that this brings clarity to the misleading innuendoes of the AFC,” the letter concluded.  

In its statement of claim, the GAWU was seeking damages and pecuniary compensation for the statements made by Ramjattan against them and broadcast on DTV Channel 8 on the September 6, 2008 in a televised interview.

GAWU argued that the words uttered by Ramjattan were untrue and was intended to mean that the Union was acting contrary to its rules and the law, involved in an illegality, misused its funds and, was unfit to fulfil its duties to its membership.

According to the Union, its character and reputation suffered serious

injury in respect of their accredited position as the sole bargaining agent of

field and other workers in the sugar industry. The utterances complained of by the plaintiff which Ramjattan does not deny making were as follows, “Well let me just add $5000 – $5000 per year at 15,000 workers that is $75 million GAWU is making every year – $75 million GAWU is collecting from workers. For $75 million worth, you all feel that GAWU is representing all you to that value? Do you know what is $75,000,000.00 for a union and cannot deal with an issue that you need representation? I want to bring home that point. GAWU is associated as we all know, I know that, because I was a member of the PPP leadership. As an associate with a political party it can give funds to the party. From my recollection, I may be wrong about the actual percentage, but I am certain I am near; about twenty percent of that is given to the PPP. The PPP forms the government that is what I am saying just imagine they are literally one of the same and it is so important now that when you look back at what the struggles were over the years, then to only give this monopoly union and not getting any representation…”

While acknowledging that those words were said, the defendants contended that they were not capable of meaning, or being understood as, defamatory, while adding that in their “natural and ordinary meaning are true in substance and in fact.”

The defendants sought to rely on a qualified privilege that the words were published on a matter of public concern and was for the public’s benefit. Further, that Ramjattan was led to believe that the words were true and even if they are now untrue, his statement was not actuated by malice and can never be said to be defamatory to the plaintiff, thus denying that the plaintiff suffered any loss or damage as it contended. Citing case law and other legal authorities on which it relied, the court in considering whether the words were capable of defamation in the circumstances of this case, found that the admissible evidence before it did not support such a finding.

Referencing evidence presented at trial, the judgment noted that the principal evidence led by the GAWU was contained in the testimony of Narine who was adamant that the plaintiff never made a donation or financial contribution to the PPP.

According to the written ruling seen by this newspaper, the audited financial statements of the Union were tendered into evidence which revealed that there was no entry in the financial statements in respect of a contribution in any form or fashion to the People’s Progressive Party.

It went on to say that Ramjattan himself admitted that his information of such a contribution would have been as a result of what senior members of the Union

would have told him.

Counsel for the plaintiff had argued that it is an offence to misapply trade union funds to purposes other than those expressed or directed in the Rules of the Union, pursuant to Section 23 of the Trade Union Act.

Narine had taken particular issue with the words uttered by Ramjattan that “…As an associate with a political party it can give funds to the party. From my recollection, I may be wrong about the actual percentage, but I am certain I am near; about twenty percent of that is given to the PPP.”

The court noted that Ramjattan was saying that the Union makes a financial contribution to the PPP from its membership funds and that they were one and the same, opining further that representation was lacking by the Union of its

members.

Imputation

The court asked itself, “Are these words capable of a defamatory meaning? Were they capable of an imputation to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally, to cut them off from society, or to expose them to hatred, contempt or ridicule? Was there an imputation in the words complained of that the plaintiff union was engaged in an unlawful activity by it [allegedly] making a financial contribution to the plaintiff union and therefore misapplying funds which are not authorized by the Union’s rules?”

Justice Harnanan said that the admissible evidence before the court did not suggest that there was an imputation by the words complained of that the Union was committing an offence in the eyes of the reasonable, right-thinking members of society. The admissible evidence he said, suggested that the words uttered by Ramjattan were false.

The court, however, said that it could not cross the hurdle of whether the words were capable of a defamatory meaning, noting that the allegation being false, did not automatically convert the assertions to being defamatory.

The judge said that even if the court is wrong in its finding, certainly, in its view, the admissible evidence before it did not support a finding that the statements were defamatory in the circumstances of the case. Justtice Harnanan did, however, find Ramjattan’s utterances to have been “irresponsible, indifferent and without any foundational bases, and being a member of the legal profession ought to have heightened his concern for making public statements which are capable of being verified or corroborated.”

The judge surmised further, that there was no evidence that the words used by Ramjattan placed the plaintiff in any jeopardy of, or being shunned by members or society generally.

It was noted that the evidence of the General Secretary himself revealed that the Union did not lose any members as a result of the statements made by Ramjattan, but rather by what he, (Narine) said that the reduction in membership was due to  a closure of the Diamond Estate and a general decrease of the workforce.

In the absence of a finding that the words used by Ramjattan were capable of a defamatory meaning, the court dismissed GAWU’s action, making no order as to cost having found from the evidence that the words complained of were “false and baseless.”

Ramjattan and DTV were represented by attorney Nigel Hughes.  GAWU, meanwhile, was represented by Senior Counsel Ashton Chase.

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