Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj: Privy Council ruling is a win for the media practice and free speech

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Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj: Privy Council ruling is a win for the media practice and free speech

Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, has cited the recent Privy Council ruling that for someone to be charged with sedition in T&T, the State will have to prove that the person or published speech incited violence or public disorder. Maharaj said that this is an important judgement because it protects free speech, even if someone disagrees with what is said: “This is one of the most landmark decisions in Trinidad and Tobago because the Government could have used the sedition act to oppress the media, to oppress free speech. It would be very easy if the Government had control of the prosecution process, and I mean any government, to be able to use the sedition act to harass the media.”

At a media conference held at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu School in St Augustine yesterday, Maharaj said the interpretation came after an October 12 Privy Council ruling on a constitutional challenge of the sedition law in T&T by Vijay Maharaj on behalf of his late father, former Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha secretary general Satnarayan Maharaj.

Maharaj said while the Privy Council on October 12 ruled that it could not examine the constitutionality of the sedition law in T&T because it is existing law and was saved, the Privy Council decided that under common law it could determine if the definition of the law met common law requirements. He said the Council ruled that the sedition law did not meet the requirements of common law, so it ruled that proof of intention of violence or public disorder was required.

He sought to clarify that the statements the late Sat Maharaj made, although people may disagree with it, did not constitute sedition and there’s no decision that says it constitutes sedition. But the most important part of this development of the law is that if the police want to use this sedition law, they cannot only satisfy themselves as to what is in the statute in black and white, but they also have to satisfy the intention to cause violence or public disorder.

Vijay Maharaj took the matter to the Privy Council after the Court of Appeal overturned High Court Judge Frank Seepersad’s decision to strike down aspects of the legislation, which he ruled were unconstitutional. Sat Maharaj filed the lawsuit after police executed search warrants on the SDMS’ media house Central Broadcasting Services Limited (CBSL) after he made a series of incendiary statements on his Maha Sabha Strikes Back programme on TV Jaagriti on April 15, 2019. Sat Maharaj claimed that “citizens living in Tobago are lazy and labelled the men as rapists.”

The former AG said that even if you use inflammatory statements against a Prime Minister, Opposition Leader or anybody, as long as you do not incite violence or public disorder, there is no criminal offence. He said, however, there may be a civil action still for defamation. He also believed that following the ruling, there exists room for people charged with sedition to possibly take legal action against the State.