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Mar 30, 2007

P.M. wins libel suit against Reporter newspaper

Story Picture“Mr. Musa was defamed.” Those were the words of Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh this morning as he handed down his judgement in the case of the Prime Minister versus The Reporter’s Publisher Harry Lawrence. Conteh said that Lawrence’s attorney Dean Barrow “failed to prove the truth of the words set out” in the editorial of October second 2005. That column accused the Prime Minister of committing an illegal act in connection with the multi-million dollar tax write off for the Belize Bank and went on to allege that Musa had collected millions more in campaign financing from Michael Ashcroft for the 2003 elections. Lawrence’s defence was that the column was justified as fair comment on a matter of public interest. But the C.J. was not convinced by those arguments and felt that the P.M., who defended by son Kareem Musa, “proved his case” for defamation and libel. And although Conteh did not think that Lawrence published the remarks “with an eye to profit or to increase circulation” he nonetheless ordered the newspaper publisher to pay twenty-five thousand dollars in damages for defamation and ten thousand dollars in court costs. Following the adjournment, Lawrence and Musa gave their opinions of the outcome.

Kareem Musa, Attorney for the P.M.
“Naturally am very pleased with the judgement. I believe it was very fair and balanced, especially since the case was very one-sided, in my opinion. As the Chief Justice rightly pointed out, not only was the defence lacking in several respects, but if you recall from the testimony of Mr. Lawrence, he actually testified on our behalf, saying he was aware of the facts, but chose not to include it in his editorial, so it was a clear case of irresponsible journalism in my opinion.”

Harry Lawrence, Publisher, Reporter Newspaper
“I am of course very disappointed in the ruling of the court. I expected the Chief Justice to give more consideration to the constitutional aspect, which I raised in my examination in chief, which I believe provides a way for the Prime Minister to do these things, not in an arbitrary way, but in an orderly way, consulting with the National Assembly, so I am disappointed in that sense. I also think that the penalty that he’s imposed is very high in view of the smallness of our economy and also in view of the fact that no malice was found in this case and indeed there was none, there was no malice.”

“In his examination the Prime Minister said that he had received no money from Mr. Ashcroft at any time. He also said that he had received no money from Mr. Barry Bowen. When we provided him with a copy of the cancelled cheque of a million dollars contributed by Mr. Barry Bowen, he said he had no knowledge of it, except through the press, which it gives me a very bad impression of the veracity of the Prime Minister. I am not attacking him, but I am saying that I don’t think he was truthful.”

Kareem Musa
“As the Chief Justice rightly pointed out, he was vindicated in this case. I think it was sort of a political manoeuvre to get him on the stand and everything, but he was unshakable as a witness and he stood strong and I believe that he is going to take a stance on all these distortions, distorted reports that are out there.”

Lawrence says he is not sure whether he will appeal the judgement. Because his attorney, Dean Barrow was not feeling well enough to appear in court today, Tanya Moody appeared on his behalf.

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