The Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) Company Limited has been given a lifeline in its defamation lawsuit against Opposition MP Dr Roodal Moonilal.
Delivering a judgment on Wednesday, Appellate Judges Allan Mendonca, Prakash Moosai and Andre Des Vignes ruled that a High Court Judge was wrong to dismiss CEPEP’s defamation counterclaim against Moonilal, which it filed after Moonilal brought a defamation lawsuit against it in 2016.
The appeal centred around whether the State company could truly be considered a government body, as such entities are not permitted to pursue such defamation claims against citizens.
In his preliminary ruling, former High Court Judge Ronnie Boodoosingh had said that State agencies such as CEPEP are not legally protected to bring such lawsuits against the public and to safeguard themselves from any scrutiny as such companies should be transparent with the citizens.
“The fundamental right of freedom of speech is involved here and there is a public interest consideration in allowing inhibited criticisms. The threat of a civil action can have a rippling effect on the right of freedom of speech, especially for a company with half a billion dollars of public funds each year,” Boodoosingh said.
Mendonca, who wrote the judgment, noted that while the company’s board is appointed by elected officials and it receives large amounts of State-funding, each year, he could not easily determine the company’s status as it had claimed that it also solicits private jobs as a trading company.
He noted that as the company did not provide financial records in the appeal to show the portion of its revenues it earned from private jobs and that a trial judge should reconsider his decision after receiving such evidence.
“On the evidence as it stands before the court I do not think it is reasonable to say that the role of the appellant is no more than to execute Government’s policy,” Mendonca said.
Mendonca also noted that Boodoosingh dismissed CEPEP’s counterclaim without considering that it was also claiming malicious falsehood in Moonilal’s statements in addition to defamation.
He stated that there was no bar to government bodies making such malicious falsehood claims and it should have been allowed to continue.
Moonilal initially brought a lawsuit against the company, and by extension the State, after the publication of a full-page advertisement in August 2016, alleging that there was misappropriation of $39.6 million of CEPEP’s funds on construction projects in his constituency, while he was the company’s line minister.
As a result, CEPEP counter-sued the Oropouche East MP claiming made defamatory statements against the company’s operations under the People’s National Movement (PNM) administration.
The company further sought an injunction preventing Moonilal from repeating such statements but the request was eventually withdrawn.
As Boodoosingh has been elevated to the Court of Appeal, the case would have to be reconsidered by a new judge.
CEPEP was represented by Elton Prescott, SC, Phillip Lamont and Farai Hove-Masaisai while Larry Lalla and Vivek Lakhan-Joseph represented Moonilal.