Express to pay $.5m to Imbert for defamation

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Finance Minister Colm Imbert – File photo by Angelo Marcelle

FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert has been successful in a defamation claim against the Trinidad Express newspaper.

He will receive $550,000 in damages from the newspaper.

Justice Ricky Rahim made the order on March 6, after finding the paper was reckless when it published a story on November 6, 2016.

The Sunday Express article concerned payments by the Housing Development Company for consultancy services to Bolt Trinidad, a company owned by Imbert’s wife.

Imbert sued the Trinidad Express and its reporter Renuka Singh.

In his ruling, Rahim said, “The court is of the view that at the lowest, the defendants were reckless as to whether the information provided by the source was true in relation to the specific allegation against the claimant, that they had the opportunity to confirm and verify the facts but chose so not to do so that they could publish the article to the Sunday readership which would ordinarily carry an increased economic benefit to the paper. Such actions are inimical to the common good in a democratic society and goes against the grain of fairness.

“It evokes a sense of public outrage in the mind of the reasonable and law-abiding person.”

Rahim said from the evidence, Singh did not receive any supporting documents, did not seek comment from Imbert, failed to verify the information from her source and intentionally gave insufficient time to the HDC to respond to the allegation.

He also found the reporter omitted the gravamen of the allegation in her inquiry of the HDC and “rushed to publication without awaiting the promised response within a reasonable time.”

He added, “The actions of the defendants were in the court’s view at the highest, high-handed and intentional.

“In that regard, the court has drawn the inference that they were bent on embarrassing the claimant regardless of where the truth lay.

“The actions of the defendants may, therefore, be viewed as calculating and deceptive.

“This deception even found its way into the evidence given by the defendants…on the existence of relevant documents, texts and e-mails, appeared to the court to be made up for the purpose of defending the case.”

Rahim also noted the article set out what were “clearly untruths” relating to Imbert.

He was also critical of the front-page photograph of the Imberts used for the story.

“The imagery would have connected the dots in the mind of the reader once the article was read.

“The combination of headlines, photos and the article was saying, ‘Look here, the husband of the lady who owns Bolt’…”

He added, “In that regard, the article takes the proverbial horse (the reader) to the trough and bends his head so that lips touch the water as if it were leaving only the act of drinking up to the reader.

“Objectively, such an assertion was bound to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally.

“The public expects that political office-holders, who are entrusted with the care and control of the patrimony of the nation and who are democratically elected, would at all times do that which is in the beneficial interest of the public they serve and in so doing be fair and just.

“In this case, the contents of the article had suggested just the opposite.

“In that regard, context is of extreme importance.”

Rahim said the allegation against the minister was “damning and a serious one and was bound to affect the minister. “

“The words complained of are specific and all reasonably convey one meaning pointing in one direction… This of course was the raison d’etre of the article published on a Sunday when Trinidadians sit with their morning doubles and coffee and read cover to cover.

“The article existed because of the statements of untruth and the connection with the claimant, otherwise it would not be a ‘story’ capable of adorning the Sunday paper.

“There is no gainsaying that freedom of expression and freedom of the press (and the concomitant right of the public to know which these freedoms support) are important pillars of democracy.

“For our democratic societies to function properly, we require strong and independent news media that report fearlessly (but not irresponsibly) on matters of genuine public interest.

He also said while issues raised in the article passed the test of the public’s right to know, the added information concerning Imbert, as the finance minister, regarding the payments to his wife’s company by the state agency “was not justified.”

“The view of the court even allowing for editorial judgment the inclusion of the information was not justified.

“This is so having regard to the clear admission of Singh who knew that she had no information that the claimant was directly involved…

“The court therefore finds that the general message could have been conveyed in the article without recourse to the unconfirmed information in relation to the claimant.”

He added, “The more serious the charge, the more the public is misinformed and the individual harmed. This is the case here because the allegation was proven to be untrue.

“Responsible journalism would therefore have demanded that the foundation of the allegation, namely the documents, would be kept well secured and not in a desk that allegedly disappeared.”

He doubted the documents existed.

“The court has been greatly disturbed by the absence of those documents and finds that the non-production and the circumstances of the explanation for the same leaves it with grave doubt as to whether the documents in fact existed…

“Far from meeting the standard of responsible journalism, therefore, the court finds that the approach adopted by the defendants appeared to carry with it an improper motive to put it mildly.”

Imbert testified at the trial, as well as Singh and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Omatie Lyder.

Imbert was represented by Michael Quamina, SC. Farees Hosein represented the Trinidad Express and Singh.