The Court of Appeal has ruled that the Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) is subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Delivering a judgement yesterday, Appellate Judges Alice Yorke-Soo Hon, Gregory Smith and Malcolm Holdip dismissed TSTT’s appeal over the decision of a High Court Judge to uphold a lawsuit from political and social activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj on the issue.
Maharaj brought the lawsuit in February 2017 after the telecommunications provider refused his request under the FOIA to disclose information on its management structure, salaries and its shareholder agreement.
Maharaj claimed that he was interested in the information as TSTT is indirectly funded by taxpayers, who have a vested interest in its financial viability.
High Court Judge David Harris initially refused Maharaj leave to pursue the judicial review claim before another panel of the Appeal Court reversed his decision.
In December 2018, Justice Harris upheld Maharaj’s lawsuit, as he ruled that TSTT is a public authority which is subject to the provisions of the legislation, which gives citizens the right to request information from public authorities and State companies.
TSTT was ordered to reconsider Maharaj’s disclosure request in light of the judgement, but the company appealed.
To decide the case, the appeal panel had to consider TSTT’s corporate history.
The company was formed in 1991 by the merger of the T&T Telephone Company (TELCO) and T&T External Communications (TEXTEL). The Government held a 51 per cent stake while Cable and Wireless held the remainder.
In 2000, the Government assigned its stake in TSTT to National Enterprises Limited (NEL), which also holds its stakes in other local companies such as National Flour Mills (NFM).
In the appeal, Maharaj’s lawyer Anand Ramlogan, SC, pointed out that in 2014, the Government was essentially given total control of TSTT, as the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (TATT) suspended the rights of Cable and Wireless after it acquired Columbus International Inc, the parent company of Columbus Communications Limited, which trades as TSTT’s competitor Flow.
Cable and Wireless was also ordered to remove its directors from TSTT’s board until it divested its shareholding.
In the judgement, Justice Smith noted that in 2013, another judge had considered whether the Government effectively controlled TSTT, as the Minister of Finance controls its 66 per cent stake in NEL and ruled that it did not.
While Justice Smith considered Ramlogan’s point on the TATT’s suspension, he ruled that it did not prove that the Government was in control, as there was no evidence that NEL was an intermediary of the Government.
However, Justice Smith upheld Maharaj’s case based on Ramlogan’s submission that a notification in the Gazette from 2020 announced that Cabinet had approved the appointment of Sean Roach as TSTT chairman and other Government directors.
He said although the notification was not considered by Justice Harris, it could not be ignored by him and his colleagues, as the Gazette served as official notification on behalf of the State.
“If the information in the Gazette is ignored, our analysis of who is in effective control of TSTT would produce a highly artificial result. In fact, it would be a result that would fly in the face of common sense,” he said.
Despite his ruling in the case, Justice Smith noted that TSTT’s classification as a public authority in terms of the FOIA could change in the future if the Government was to either divest itself of all or a greater part of its majority shareholding or cede its power to appoint the company’s board.
Maharaj was also represented by Jayanti Lutchmedial, Chelsea Stewart, Alana Rambaran and Dr Che Dindial.
Dr Claude Denbow, Donna Denbow and Jerome Rajcoomar represented TSTT.