Attorney General Anand Ramlogan yesterday offered a qualified apology for statements which he maintained were made purely in “good political picong”.
“I humbly apologise... Never too big to apologise,” he said, referring to comments he made last Friday in the House of Representatives which have raised the ire of the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM).
Speaking in the debate on the Dog Control Bill, Ramlogan described “Kristel-Marie Ramnath”, animal behaviourist, as Terrence Deyalsingh’s “ex-girlfriend” and noted Ramnath was deprived of Deyalsingh’s services on Valentine’s night, which seemed to have had him (Deyalsingh) agitated.
The statements were condemned by the PNM to be a “low blow” and PNM MPs walked out of the chamber. The PNM General Council, the PNM St Joseph constituency Women’s League and Opposition Leader Keith Rowley have called on the Prime Minister to remove Ramlogan.
However, as he piloted the Libel and Defamation Amendment Bill in the Senate yesterday, Ramlogan referred to the criminal libel case in the Philippines in which internationally acclaimed broadcaster Alex Adonis was jailed for two years because he published a story about a congressman who was seen running naked in a hotel when caught in bed by the husband of the woman with whom he was said to have spent the night.
“Just like the UNC!” PNM Senator Camille Robinson-Regis chirped.
The Attorney General seized on the statement, saying, “You see, that is the kind of political picong that we are accustomed to. I wouldn’t take umbrage at that.”
This brought loud laughter from the Government, Independent and even Opposition benches.
Ramlogan continued: “So when the leader of Opposition Business in the Senate says the UNC is caught running naked from a hotel room, I am not going to lead a walkout in Parliament. I accept that as good political humour and political picong.
“You see, you can’t be that thin-skinned and you can’t misrepresent things. You’re having a debate on Valentine’s Day in the Parliament and you have across-the-floor talk about everybody wanting to go home because yuh really want to be with your loved one on Valentine’s night. You have to take some fatigue,” he said.
“And the media says yuh say ‘girlfriend’ and a man (Terrence Deyalsingh) says ‘oh God, meh wife and children suffering’, and they say ‘apologise’.”
But the Attorney General said he wanted to correct the media. He said the Hansard shows he did not say “girlfriend”, it was ex-girlfriend. He said the Hansard would also show that when he was called upon to apologise, he did so.
“But for the avoidance of all doubt,” he wanted to say no apology was necessary for that picong.
“For the record, I want to say that it was good political picong and I hope that it was not taken out of context. It probably was.
“But to the extent that that was misunderstood, misrepresented, inaccurately reported and portrayed, that is the kind of thing that one has to live with as part of a free and functioning, or dysfunctioning and malfunctioning... democratic society. But the apology is there and I repeat it. I humbly apologise,” he said.
“That is man!” his colleagues chorused as they thumped their tables in support of him.
Contacted yesterday Deyalsingh said he wanted to read the Attorney General’s full statement before commenting on the apology.
Turning to the bill, which seeks to remove criminal libel, the Attorney General said libel was not meant to capture statements made in political humour and picong because in Trinidad and Tobago this was part of the culture. He said the Parliament Channel tended to carry only the voice of the Speaker (who is on his legs), and not the cross-talk which may be fuelling much of the debate.
However, the Attorney General said it was frightening what people put on the blogs.
“And we have not arrested and charged anyone. But I have had cause to point out to our newspapers that we have to be careful with the online blogging. Because when they publish a story, they have a facility where you can post an instantaneous comment and it is not regulated. And people can put that you are a drug lord, that you have been convicted of murder and whatever they want, and it is seen all over the world,” he said. He said this had to be addressed by the newspapers, otherwise they would be on the receiving end of lawsuits.
Ramlogan said there would be people in the media who have political agendas. He said some may be professional enough to do neutral stories, while others will allow their subconscious or unconscious to influence them.
“But that is part and parcel of the game. You can’t get away from that,” he said. Therefore, the law is retained where if a person knowingly publishes something that is false, that can be addressed, he said.
The Attorney General said he had taken a position that since assuming public office he would not take the media to court.
“I have been vilified and criticised, justifiably and unjustifiably, but I have not taken a media house to court,” he said, adding the reason for that is that in his interaction with journalists, “I have had the benefit of goodwill and some degree of fairness”.
He said he would not take someone to court for political picong since “that is part and parcel of who we are”.
Ramlogan said the Government, which had been under intense scrutiny and robust criticism by the media, ought to have been the last administration to remove criminal libel. But, he said, this Government was not afraid of scrutiny because it had nothing to hide. He said when the Prime Minister got the “Democracy Medal”, some people sought to belittle and laughed at the award, saying she lost four elections. “What they forgot is that she called the elections. They (the PNM) ran from democracy, we (the People’s Partnership Government) faced democracy,” he said, to desk-thumping.