St Lucia PM threatens local journalist with defamation lawsuit

St.Lucia PM Allan Chastanet

 CASTRIES, St Lucia — Seemingly determined to prove the accuracy of the well known saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” [The more things change, the more they stay the same], lawyers acting for Saint Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet last week embarked on the well trodden path of threatening to sue local media for alleged defamation on grounds that are at best tenuous.

The latest blatant abuse of political and economic power in this regard stems from a report by Rehani Isidore, a journalist with HTS Television in Saint Lucia, that Britain’s Prince Harry would be staying at the island’s Coco Palm Resort, which is owned by the Chastanet family and run by the recently elected prime minister’s sister, during a forthcoming Royal tour of the Caribbean.

The report in question was based on a press release to that effect issued by the hotel and entitled “Coco Palm rolls out the red carpet for Prince Harry’s visit”, which was featured on the hotel’s website, the Saint Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) website and reported in local online media.

However, Chastanet later claimed that the press release had been withdrawn – an event that has apparently gone unreported by any local media and no second press release withdrawing the first has ever been made public.

Nevertheless, on September 23, 2016, Mark D. Maragh, managing partner of Amicus Law Chambers, wrote to Isidore in the following terms:

We act herein on behalf of our client Mr Allen Michael Chastanet.
We are instructed by our client as follows:

1. That you, Mr Rehani Isidore, are employed as a reporter by Helen Television Systems, Morne Fortune, Castries. You host a segment of the HTS News Force broadcast called E-Poll, which runs during the said broadcast which airs between 7 and 8 pm weekdays and which is widely circulated via television throughout St Lucia and globally via the internet.

2. On or about 16th September 2016, you, while hosting the said E-Poll program, made the statements of and concerning our client directly or by reference to our client:

“The details of the Royals visit are still emerging. However what we do know is the lucky resort bestowed with the once in a lifetime honour of hosting the members of the British Monarchy, Coco Palm Resorts Inc. at Rodney Bay, is an establishment owned and run by the Chastanet family. Moreover, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet occupied an executive role at the Resort prior to the 2016 general elections. Interestingly, a Coco Palm press release announcing the Royal visit has reportedly been removed from circulation on the local media circuit. Here’s what we are asking about this once in a lifetime visit by the Royals in this E-Poll… Is it a conflict of interest for State officials to host foreign dignitaries at their privately run establishments? [Emphasis in original]

3. These statements are defamatory of our client and have caused damage to his reputation as evidenced by comments on various social media sites.

4. The statements are defamatory in that they suggest directly and by innuendo that our client abused his position as Prime Minister to influence or cause Coco Palm Resort to benefit from having Prince Harry and our client has instructed us to proceed immediately to commence against you, Helen Television Systems and Radio 100.

Please be guided accordingly.

It is not known whether Chastanet has threatened similar legal action against Coco Palm Resort and/or his sister for publishing the original press release that falsely claimed that Prince Harry would be staying at the hotel and thereby creating the reasonable inference that Chastanet abused his position as prime minister to facilitate the reported Royal stay and/or for failing to remove from its website on a timely basis the statement that, at the time, Allen Chastanet was still the managing director of the resort notwithstanding his election in June as head of government.

According to Chastanet, Prince Harry will not be staying at any local hotel while in Saint Lucia but would instead be “staying on his boat”, without revealing which vessel that might be.

The controversy has since attracted the attention of British media in the shape of a recent article in the Daily Express newspaper under the headline “Prince Harry’s trip to the Caribbean won’t be plain sailing” and noting that the prince “could find himself in a sticky situation when he visits the Caribbean in November”.

“An almighty row has broken out in St Lucia over where the 32-year-old royal might stay during his tour on behalf of the Queen. Prime Minister Allen Chastanet was last week forced to deny any conflict of interest after it was reported the fifth-in-line to the throne might be put up in his hotel during the trip, which will also include stops in Guyana, St Kitts-Nevis and Barbados,” the Express reported.

“’The Prince is not staying at any hotel,’ snapped Chastanet at reporters. ‘The Prince is staying on his boat,’” the newspaper noted, also questioning to which boat the prime minister was referring.

“Surely not the Royal Yacht Britannia, retired to be a tourist trap in Leith? Sorting out accommodation for this sojourn looks to be anything but plain sailing,” the report concluded.

It is not known whether Chastanet also intends to sue the Daily Expressfor defamation.

As noted, the threat of legal action against local media is a well-established and, unfortunately, an effective method in Saint Lucia of suppressing freedom of the press and forcing self-censorship on journalists and media outlets.

In fact, after a similar incident in 2013 when a minister in the then St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) government threatened legal action against Timothy Poleon, another local radio and TV journalist, Chastanet’s own party, the United Workers Party (UWP) issued a press statement saying that it stood firmly with Poleon and the media, against any form of legal action proposed by then minister for legal affairs, home affairs and national security, Phillip La Corbiniere.

“Over the last few weeks, Saint Lucians have watched and listened as ministers target specific media workers in an effort to intimidate and instill fear in them by the issuance of threats. The latest statement coming from Senator Victor LaCorbiniere is evident that this Labour Administration does not respect the democratic right of every citizen of this country,” the UWP said at the time.

“Must media workers, in the execution of their duties and responsibilities, suffer the rampant persecution and onslaught of name calling such as labeling Mr Poleon a ‘media terrorist’?” the UWP asked, an ironic precursor to Chastanet’s more recent public branding of Isidore as “a liar”.

“It appears that the SLP administration has developed a pattern of intimidation each time they assume office to gain total control of the media by its statements, threats and now, manifested actions,” the UWP continued, adding that this brought to the fore the SLP’s failed attempt, several years ago, at passing legislation to achieve that goal.

“It is sad that a government, elected by the people to uphold the law, would now turn on its people by infringing upon their fundamental democratic rights, traditions and freedom of the press in Saint Lucia. Therefore, the United Workers Party stands ready to defend ‘freedom of speech’ which is a constitutional right of all Saint Lucians, including that of Mr Timothy Poleon,” the UWP asserted.

The International Press Institute (IPI) previously said that threats by politicians in Saint Lucia, even if they do not end up in concrete legal action, represent potential intimidation of the press and are therefore without question a cause for concern.

At the time, Rick Wayne, editor of the St Lucia Star, said that he was “convinced the whole aim is to frighten the rest of the media”, which, he added, “is easy to do”.

He added: “If something is said about you with regard to your conduct in terms of a public servant that is not true, all you need to do is inform the public of the truth and the truth will set you free.”

A previous US ambassador to the region also once referred to threats of this nature as “a standard political bully tactic”.

More recently, in a virtual rerun of the threatened lawsuit against Poleon in 2013, an attorney representing Claudius Francis, the then president of the senate, wrote to another local broadcaster in April 2016 threatening to institute proceedings for defamation.

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