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Appeal Court ups libel award by $200,000
A newspaper’s bid to reduce the damages of over $.5 million for defamation that it had been ordered to pay backfired last week with the Appeal Court instead increasing the figure by $200,000. In a 65-page judgment delivered last Wednesday, the court dismissed an appeal from the Trinidad Express Newspapers, which was seeking to overturn the 2010 decision of a High Court judge ordering the newspaper to pay former British West Indian Airways (BWIA) chief executive Conrad Aleong $650,000. The $850,000 award is the highest ever in T&T in a case of multiple libel.
The lawsuit centred on a series of articles written by investigative reporter Camini Marajh and published between April 6 and May 4, 2003, which made allegations about Aleong’s management of the financially troubled state carrier, subsequently restructured and rebranded Caribbean Airlines Ltd. Appellate judges Allan Mendonca, Peter Jamadar and Maureen Rajnauth-Lee agreed with the trial’s judge findings. They felt, however, his award of damages was inordinately low as he failed to consider several aggravating factors which favoured increased compensation, including Marajh’s reputation for independence and credibility, coupled with the large readership of the newspaper. Rajnauth-Lee wrote: “In my view, this was an extremely serious libel touching on the respondent’s (Aleong) personal integrity, professional reputation, honour, loyalty and the core attributes of his personality. There were serious doubts whether the respondent could ever reclaim his reputation which had been significantly damaged.
“I do not consider the steps taken by the fourth appellant (Marajh) to gather and publish the information were responsible and fair or the products were the product of responsible journalism.”
While she acknowledged that the nature of the reports was of public interest since the airline had been the recipient of several government bailouts, Rajnauth-Lee pointed out they contained multiple inaccuracies which Marajh could have verified and corrected. She also took issue with the tone of the articles, which she said were neither balanced or neutral, as Aleong’s responses to the allegations were not fairly reflected.