THE judge hearing the constitutional challenge of this country’s sedition laws will, on January 13, give his decision on whether certain sections of the Sedition Act are void and contravenes citizens’ rights.
Justice Frank Seepersad set the date for the delivery of his ruling in the claim which was brought by the late Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) secretary-general Satnarayn Maharaj.
As part of his ruling, as agreed to by the parties, the judge will also rule on an application to have Maharaj’s son Vijay replace him as claimant in the lawsuit.
The elder Maharaj died on November 16, and the State resisted the application saying Maharaj’s estate cannot move forward with the claim since any relief sought for an alleged breach of rights was specific to the person making the allegation.
In his opening statement, Maharaj’s lead attorney, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, said the matter raises important questions of great public interest not only in TT but also in the Commonwealth.
He said the pre-Colonial sedition laws were created by the Crown to suppress freedom of speech, but was unconstitutional to the tenants of a democratic and sovereign State as sections 3, 4 and 13 of the Act infringed section 1 of the Constitution which gives citizens the right to freedom of thought and expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association and assembly.
Maharaj also argued that the impugned sections were broad, uncertain and lacked definition of what was a seditious intent. Because of this, he added, it allowed for discrimination and was of no effect. “A vague law should be treated as void,” Maharaj submitted, adding that it would have a “chilling effect” on free speech and make it possible for the executive to prosecute people who criticise it.
He also countered the savings clause argument raised by the State.
In response, Senior Counsel Fyard Hosein submitted that Maharaj’s claim was premature since no one had been charged and the police had only started an investigation to determine if statements made by the Maha Sabha head fell within the confines of the Sedition Act.
“No rights were infringed,” he argued, adding that it was for the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a recommendation after being approached by the police to determine if the alleged acts met the threshold for the laying of charges.
“They are way off the mark,” he said of the claim. He said any attempt to subvert legislation, the court must first go to the Interpretation Act, then to the Constitution, then apply the presumption of constitutionality to determine if the law was constitutionally compliant.
“It (sedition laws) exists in several jurisdictions. No one can say we are peculiar,” Hosein added, saying that our legislation was suited to our society. He also said laws are sometimes described as archaic, but countries legislate specifically for what was required in society.
He also said sedition was never meant to operate as a curtailment of freedom of expression, but only when the integrity of the State is being attacked.
“A right to criticise doesn’t mean you can’t attract sanctions,” he added.
Maharaj filed the lawsuit after police executed search warrants on the SDMS’ Radio and TV Jaagriti compound and took recordings of the Maha Sabha Strikes Back programme from April 15. The police’s search came days after a clip of Maharaj making disparaging comments on his television programme about Tobagonians.
In the clip, which went viral on social media, Maharaj described Tobagonians as lazy people, more interested in racing crabs and goats and targeting white women to rob and rape them.
Maharaj and the parent company for the radio and television stations, Central Broadcasting Services Ltd, are also represented by attorneys Jagdeo Singh, Dinesh Rambally, Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkissoon, Kavita Roop-Boodoo and Rhea Khan, while the Attorney General is represented by Fyard Hosein, SC, and Josephina Baptiste-Mohammed.