Court awards Imbert $.5m in defamation case against Phillip Alexander

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A High Court judge has awarded Finance Minister Colm Imbert $525,000 for defamation by social activist and politician Phillip Alexander.

A High Court judge has awarded Finance Minister Colm Imbert $525,000 for defamation by social activist and politician Phillip Alexander but Alexander says he will be appealing the matter.

According to the judgment by Justice Jacqueline Wilson, dated September 19, Alexander’s comments, which were posted on his Facebook pages, constituted a “sustained attack” on Imbert’s character and integrity, both personally and in his role as Minister of Finance.

In statements made on February 29 and March 1, Alexander accused Imbert of corruption and called for an investigation into the purchase of a luxury car. The defence argued the public had a right to know of the allegations and they were published “on an occasion of qualified privilege and amounted to fair comment.”

In the judgment, Wilson said the posts raised matters that were in the public interest but Alexander did not follow responsible journalism as he did not take reasonable steps to verify whether or not his statements were true.

In measuring the damages, the judge took into account that Alexander’s social media had “a large following,” about 54,000 followers. Also, as a well-known personality, his words carried “significant weight” in the public domain.

On Friday night, Imbert tweeted the outcome of the case, attaching the full judgement.

Alexander told Sunday Newsday, “Colm Imbert’s excitement over the decision shows how significant he sees me and how important a victory of any kind over me makes him feel. Let him have his fifteen minutes.”

He said he will be appealing the matter as “a significant piece of evidence” was not allowed in court and he hoped to have that rectified as it supported his defences of truth and fair comment. He added that people in government and who hold public office should be open to criticism, as attempts to stifle such criticism was censorship.

“If you live in a country where taxpayers cannot question government ministers then how can it be considered a democracy? Many of these matters turn on extremely fine points of law that are not present in the cut and thrust of politics.”

Alexander also quoted former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj before the Privy Council who said, “the right to free expression includes the right to express views on matters of political concern, and a generous margin is given for statements in this context.

“The primary focus of this jurisprudence is on the need to avoid chilling legitimate political expression by ensuring that those who speak out in good faith on political topics are not unreasonably exposed to findings of liability for defamation.”

He added that there was no proof his statements actually affected Imbert’s reputation. Also, while he may have many followers, not all would have viewed or engaged with the posts. Therefore, Imbert should have gotten nominal damages.