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What's good for the Goose

March 31, 2002
By Raffique Shah

DURING the short period he has been the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mark Mohammed earned the respect of many people who had entertained doubts about his suitability for the office at the time he was appointed. There were times when his decisions not to prosecute certain people cast doubts on his objectivity, but those who felt that way would later change their perceptions of the man when they saw him act without fear or favour in other instances. In any event, the DPP is usually not the most popular judicial officer around, given the nature of his job.

Having sung praises to this young man who is soon to be elevated to the Bench, I believe it's equally important to put his recent edicts under scrutiny. While it's his duty to uphold the law and to ensure fair trials for all, it would be a grave injustice for him to muzzle the media and deny citizens their rights. Last week, following the appearance in court of six persons charged with corruption-related offences, Mohammed issued strong warnings to the media and the public about statements and actions on their part that the DPP's office will not tolerate.

Most editors are aware of the laws governing court matters that are sub judice, and articles or commentaries that could prejudice trials. Most of all, they are painfully aware of the near-invisible line that separates the truth from libel, or even how the truth could be more libelous than a lie. Indeed, while there is a perception among the public that journalists have unfettered freedom to write anything about anyone, the same public is not aware of the severe restrictions under which the media operate. Attorneys tell you, "the greater the truth, the greater the libel".

Now, on top of trying to stay on the right side of these stringent laws, journalists have to be very circumspect about how we cover court matters. And when those arrested and charged happen to prominent (or notorious) people, journalists, and now even members of the public, stand a greater chance of landing in jail than the accused do. I've had my say on the jailing of an editor during the first week of the Dole Chadee trial: the court records will show exactly how I responded to Justice Lionel Jones's multiple-muzzling orders. Suffice it to say that neither the judge nor attorney Karl Hudson-Phillips was impressed with my "defiance", as Karl put it.

Last week, when, for the first time in the history of the country two ex-ministers and three prominent businessmen were charged with various offences, there was bound to be heightened media interest. More than that, given the nature of the charges the arrested men faced, the public was sure to show a more than normal interest in the proceedings. Hell, we are talking here about charges related to the way public funds were allegedly misused or misappropriated. There must have been a sense of outrage among the public, and the fact that only a handful showed up to jeer the accused was probably because of the timing of their court appearance.

In the melee, several things happened-or did not happen. Firstly, not one of the accused was dragged from his home in handcuffs, families bawling down the place. That treatment is reserved for ordinary citizens who may have failed to meet a maintenance payment or is caught with a "joint" of ganja. Secondly, even though they were arrested on Saturday, they were given ample time to retain attorneys and a Justice of the Peace was found to grant them bail. If they were poor, they would have been cast into stinking cells for the weekend (the reason why so many arrests are made on Friday nights) and made to appear before a magistrate on Monday. And thirdly, after they were granted bail, it was discovered that all the related documents were not in order.

Then political interference started. Several of the accused said their arrests were "politically motivated". That clearly cast aspersions on the DPP's office. But worse was to come. Ishwar Galbaransingh's NYC and financial giant Maritime both issued official statements that concurred with the above view. And a number of UNC officers were also quoted in the media as saying that "the whole thing is political". Then Prime Minister Patrick Manning alluded to the prospect of more arrests to come given the nature of the inquiries.

DPP Mohammed, no doubt wanting to underscore his independence, took Manning and the media to task, issuing his dire warnings about action his department would take if journalists or politicians in any way prejudiced the upcoming preliminary inquiries. He also sounded a warning about the possible arrests of those who were accused of "mob rule" when they verbally attacked the accused outside the court. I, too, do not believe that persons who are merely charged with offences should be presumed guilty, hence people shouting after them, "You damn t'ief!"

But the DPP must be aware of other, ordinary prisoners who faced similar treatment when they made court appearances-and I didn't hear anyone appeal for protection for them. I cannot identify a case in point now, but readers must remember persons who were arrested for particularly gruesome murders being so taunted. They could not enter or leave the court's precincts without people shouting at them: "Hang 'im wid'out a trial! Yuh damn murderer!" Why no protection for them? And maybe those who gathered outside the court to view the prominent six felt that the crimes they are accused of are worse than rape or murder.

In his bid to ensure that the ex-ministers and their co-accused get fair trials, Mohammed should be careful not to unjustly curb the rights of either the media or the public. He ought to know, for example, that the media in the USA or in many European countries are allowed to publish many more details of pre-trial evidence than we are allowed here. What comes into question is the right of the public to information, especially where the alleged misappropriation of public funds is concerned. And they can only get such information via the media or by attending court.

One final point: I must ask DPP Mohammed if it's okay for an accused to have his supporters crowd the police station and the courts, creating a potentially dangerous situation? Because if he agrees with me, he should have Basdeo Panday explain the action of his followers, who marched into the Couva station when he was charged with sexual offences in 1994. What is good for the goose....

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