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EDITORIAL - Court should reject gag request

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2012 | 12:00 AM

We are firm in our position that the oversight panel appointed by the transport and works minister, Omar Davies, to help review and manage three large infrastructure projects to be negotiated with, and completed by, private firms need not conflict with the responsibilities of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG).

But while in this case we share a common position with the Government, we are concerned that in its effort to prove the correctnessof its position, the administration may also be engaged in behaviour that could have a chilling effect on public officials who speak out and, ultimately, on freedom of expression.

The committee in question is chaired by Professor Gordon Shirley, the principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona, and includes the respected elder statesman of Jamaican business, R. Danny Williams, and the accountant, Everton McDonald.

Insofar as we are aware, the integrity of none of these gentlemen is at issue, and all have won great esteem for their performances in their specific fields. Their combined experience and individual skills should make valuable sounding boards for the minister as he follows through on the projects for the development of the Port of Kingston and the north-south leg of Highway 2000, as well as prove a good resource strategy to be applied by public-sector negotiators.

Their role, from our perspective, is largely to be unpaid advisers to the minister, which should be separate from,and not conflict with, the formal oversight of the OCG. Bluntly, they could well complement the efforts of the OCG at ensuring that taxpayers get value for money and that contracts are not awarded, or managed, in a corrupt manner.

Clear violation of law

Greg Christie, the contractor general, does not agree with this construct. He has argued that not only is the Shirley Committee a wantonly deliberate attempt to circumvent his scrutiny of contracts the Government hopes to enter,but a clear violation of the law that established the OCG.

Mr Christie, however, sought to exert the authority of his office by requisitioningdocuments and reports of the deliberations of Mr Shirley's committee. They have not complied.Instead, the attorney general, Patrick Atkinson, has gone to court for a judicial review of the OCG's power to make such requests in the specific circumstance.

We agree that the courts are the best place to resolve such legal stand-offs. We, however, have one fundamental disagreement, based on the preliminary information, with the process being adopted by the attorney general. The Government, it appears, wants an injunction to stop Mr Christie from speaking to the press or issuing media releases on the issue until the hearing is complete.

The courts should not comply. Rather, the Government should withdraw this potentially dangerous request.

The administration, we suspect, is fearful of Mr Christie's usually trenchant prose, although their likely argument will be concerns about undue influence on the courts or contemptuous behaviour. The first claim would be frivolous and the courts have remedies to deal with the second.

Not so long ago, the courts, in our view, erred by gagging the press and others from disclosing they had issued an injunction halting the publication of Horace Peterkin's book, I Went to Work in My Underpants. We prefer to believe that was an aberration that will not be repeated.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.