Political activist and former Progressive Empowerment Party (PEP) political leader Phillip Alexander has emerged victorious in his appeal over being ordered by a judge to pay almost $775,000 in compensation to businessman Andrew Gabriel for defamation.
Delivering a judgment on Thursday, Appellate Judges Peter Rajkumar, Maria Wilson, and Ronnie Boodoosingh upheld Alexander’s appeal in which he claimed that High Court Judge Carol Gobin erred when she approved Gabriel’s case against him in April 2019.
Justice Rajkumar, who wrote the judgment that was approved by his colleagues, said, “In the circumstances, the trial judge misconstrued the evidence, the award as outside the reasonable range of awards for defamation of this nature, and an award of such magnitude could only serve to have a chilling effect on the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and freedom and the right to express political views.”
The lawsuit stems from statements made by Alexander on a radio talk show and in a subsequent Facebook post on February 8, 2017.
Gabriel contended that he was defamed by the statements, which he claimed accused him of being guilty of serious corruption and criminal conduct. He claimed that the statements had a devastating impact on him and his family.
In upholding Gabriel’s case, Justice Gobin awarded $525,000 in damages for hurt feelings and loss of reputation and $250,000 in aggravated damages.
While she did not consider subsequent statements made by Alexander to determine liability, she did so to assess the compensation.
As he reviewed the statements to determine the appeal, Justice Rajkumar noted that the claims made on the radio show were not defamatory as ruled by Justice Gobin.
While Justice Rajkumar noted that the social media post contained defamatory remarks, he noted that they were not aimed at Gabriel’s family as contended.
He also ruled that the subsequent statements made by Alexander, which were only considered when assessing compensation, were not defamatory.
“The appellant overstepped when he used the term bandit clan. Otherwise, he was expressing political views which did not trespass into defamation,” Justice Rajkumar said.
Based on the difference in findings, Justice Rajkumar noted that the substantial compensation was not justified.
“It was based on a misapprehension that all the publications, including the first, were defamatory and that the subsequent publications were all referable to the respondent and bore the meanings pleaded by him,” he said.
He ruled that Gabriel should only receive $10,000 in compensation.
“This takes into account the fact that the respondent’s reputation can be considered vindicated by this court in respect to the defamatory statement proven, and that hurt feelings associated with a reference to him as a member of a ‘bandit clan’ would be more appropriately compensated by a figure in that range than by the award of the trial judge,” he said.
Justice Boodoosingh agreed with his colleague’s judgment but provided his own views on some of the issues.
He noted that courts had to be cautious when ordering exorbitant awards in political defamation cases as such may have an effect on freedom of political speech and citizens holding public officials accountable.
“In democratic states the right balance has to be struck between protection of individual reputations and freedom of political speech and expression,” Justice Boodoosingh said.
Stating that such should apply to politicians as well as organisers, contributors and strong supporters, he added, “This is in the context that members of the public and opposing politicians do not have ready access to information about contributors to political parties or methods of testing such information.”
Last month, Alexander was ordered to pay $525,000 in compensation to Finance Minister Colm Imbert after he accused him of purchasing an exotic Swedish sports car for US$2 million using foreign exchange he obtained based on his Cabinet position.
Earlier this month, he was ordered to pay $850,000 in compensation to Patriotic Front political leader Mickela Panday over comments he made in relation to the decision of her party to reverse its decision to contest the 2020 general election.
Guardian Media understands that Alexander is in the process of appealing those cases.
Contacted for comment, Alexander, who retired from active politics this month, referred to a quote from the late United States civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
He was represented by Gregory Armorer and Anuradha Dean. Gabriel was represented by Douglas Mendes, SC, and Clay Hackett.