Fmr. GECOM Deputy CEO wins defamation case against Vincent Alexander
In a judgment handed down late Tuesday evening, Justice Priya Sewnarine-Beharry awarded former Deputy Chief Elections Officer (DCEO) of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) Vishnu Persaud $4.3 million dollars in damages and costs against GECOM Commissioner Vincent Alexander, Guyana Chronicle Editor Nigel Williams and Guyana National Newspapers Limited with Alexander bearing the brunt of the majority of the costs.
Persaud was represented by Devindra Kissoon and Nicholas Carryl of London House Chambers. Alexander was presented by Senior Counsel Roysdale Forde.
Persaud’s contract ended in August 2017 after 16 years of service at GECOM and it was not renewed. GECOM advertised for the position and Persaud re-applied but was denied the post by GECOM.
In an attempt to justify Persaud’s non-renewal, on June 14, 2018, the Guyana Chronicle published a front-page headline “Poor past…Alexander says Vishnu Persaud’s past performance sank him –Myers emerged the more qualified for top GECOM post.”
The Chronicle quoted statements allegedly made by Vincent Alexander saying Persaud was rejected from rehiring on the grounds of past performance and he had an “alleged history of faking his qualifications to the commission” and that former GECOM Chair Patterson “objected to Vishnu…based on the history of misrepresentation of qualifications to the commission.”
Persaud subsequently wrote a letter to Stabroek News defending himself and in the comment section under the article, Alexander published a comment which stated: “When Mr Persaud was appointed as DCEO it was on the pretext that he was the holder of a first degree.”
The Guyana Chronicle in a subsequent June 20, 2018 article, the Editor-in-Chief Nigel Williams published an article titled: ‘I Challenge Jagdeo to a Face-off on the Facts’ stating “Vishnu was appointed as the PRO of GECOM when he was not qualified for the job. He was elevated to the DCEO on the pretence of being the holder of a first degree, here again, he was appointed to a position for which he was not qualified.”
Persaud sued Alexander, Williams and the Guyana Chronicle on the grounds that the publications they made were defamatory. He alleged that he never misrepresented his qualifications in any way, and when he was appointed DCEO, he met the educational requirements set by GECOM, and submitted all details of his professional qualifications to GECOM and was hired on that basis.
Persaud stated that the words used by Alexander and Williams “imputed that he was corrupt, dishonest and put his professional reputation in disrepute. He claimed that the words published affected his social and personal relationships negatively and caused irreparable damage to his professional reputation and employability prospects.”
Both Alexander and Williams admitted that they published the words stated, but Williams denied using the words “pretence”, but use the word pretext, and they also argued that not only the comments did not injure Persaud, but the defences of fair comment and justification were available to them.
Justice Beharry in rejecting Alexander’s and William’s arguments stated that she found that the words they used “clearly expressed that the Claimant was not qualified for the posts of PRO and DCEO” and that “he was only elevated to DCEO because he represented that he had a first degree when in fact he did not have a first degree.”
Justice Beharry went on to state: “The ordinary person reading the words used would not only infer that the Claimant lacked the relevant qualifications for the positions of PRO and DCEO but that the Claimant was involved in dishonest conduct to obtain the DCEO position. These statements were an attack on the Claimant’s professional reputation and amount to defamation.”
In analyzing the comment made by Alexander under the Stabroek News post, the Judge found that “the words used by the first defendant indicate that the Claimant was ineligible for the position of DCEO and that he assumed a post for which he was not qualified. Further, he was appointed DCEO on the basis of having a first degree when in fact he did not have a first degree. The average person reading these words would be likely to believe that the Claimant misrepresented his qualifications to obtain his position.”
The Judge went on the state that there was no difference using the words “pretext” and opposed to “pretence” and dismissed Alexander’s defence in that regard stating “I do not find that there is any real difference in the literal meaning of the words or the inferences that can be drawn from them in the context of which either word is used in the Statements. It is undisputed that the articles referred to the Claimant and were published extensively. I find that the Statements are capable of being defamatory and, in the context used, are in fact defamatory of the Claimant.”
The Judge also rejected the defences of fair comment and justification.
The Judge accepted Persaud’s evidence that he was “shunned, harassed and insulted” and that “his family, friends and colleagues abroad questions his integrity.”
She found that the publications were not only made on the worldwide web but “the extent of the damage was compounded by the fact that the publications were made by [Alexander] who is a long-standing GECOM Commissioner and a significant figure in civil society and who the average Guyanese would tend to trust and believe, more so because he was well placed to know the facts.
“The first-named Defendant went out of his way to publish the statements on platforms which reached readers locally and worldwide. He ignored the demand letter sent by the Claimant’s attorney. Rather than publishing a retraction of the article and an apology he defended the statements as true in spite of plain evidence to the contrary. The repeated publication on the part of the first-named defendant after the Claimant was not selected for the position of DCEO in 2018 is indicative of malice as it served no other purpose than to damage the Claimant’s reputation.”
Justice Singh ordered Alexander to pay Persaud G$2,500,000 and Williams and Chronicle pay him G$1,500,000 jointly and severally, with G$300,000 in costs.
See the full judgment.