By Richard Millington
Guyana’s Minister of Education, Nicolette Henry, on June 24, 2019 secretly filed a defamation lawsuit against President of the New York Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy (CGID) Rickford Burke, in Guyana’s Supreme Court. The lawsuit alleges that Burke, who resides in the United States, stated on his Facebook page on March 9, 2019, that Henry “has failed Guyana with her incompetence as Minister of Education.” Henry contended in the lawsuit that she relies on her reputation to be an effective minister of government and that Burke’s post placed her in public disrepute.
Henry’s lawsuit is unfathomable. Although Rickford Burke has a huge following and a majority of Guyanese shares his opinion of Henry, everyone had moved on. No one remembered this four-month old conversation. With this meritless, ill-timed and ill-advised lawsuit, Henry has resurrected this topic. She now faces renewed scrutiny of her abysmal performance as Minister of Education at a time when her APNU+AFC coalition government faces a tough reelection. Detractors will undoubtedly link her incompetence to the performance of the government.
It must be disconcerting to President David Granger that Henry’s lawsuit is not in her private capacity but as Minister of Education. It is a flagrant attempt by a Minister to abuse the court process to silence critics. Her petty-minded attempt to suppress free speech violates democratic norms. It is a remarkable blemish against the APNU+AFC coalition government, which vehemently criticized the previous People’s Progressive Party (PPP) administration for their dictatorial tactics and repression of free speech. Undoubtedly, this is a public relations fiasco for a government whose public relations is profoundly disastrous.
In a March 7, 2019, a Facebook post on Burke page criticized Henry and the Ministry of Education (MOE) for disregarding the Guyanese founder and pioneer of STEM Guyana. STEM Guyana’s Robotics program was recently introduced to students and young people in Guyana. The program developed rapidly and gained international recognition. In two years in ranked 10th in the world.
Burke said the Minister and MOE ignored STEM’s request to participate in MOE’s roll out of Robotics in schools. He said MOE instead engaged white-owned American company, A+ Technologies to demonstrate its Robotics capabilities MOE curriculum development experts. He blasted Henry and the MOE of choosing a foreigner over a Guyanese who possesses far more qualifications and capacity than the expatriate owner of A+ Technologies. It is inexplicable that Henry would engage Rickford Burke in this case of Guyanese patriotic advocacy, in which she cannot prevail.
Henry suffered a second round of blistering criticism from Burke and the public after she allegedly engineered to the press which asserted that Burke’s description of A+ Technologies as “white-owned” was “reprehensible, distasteful and tantamount to racism.’ It also called Guyanese to “speak out against” Burke. Burke publicly linked the letter to Henry. He explained that the language was verbatim to a missive from an assistant to Henry, who contacted him on Facebook and demanding that the post be removed. He added that a source in Henry’s secretariat provided CGID with a tip about the letter and its conduit to the media.
Responding to the letter in a March 9, 2019 post the CGID President blasted Henry and DOE as unpatriotic for disrespecting a Afro-Guyanese woman for a foreigner. He also slammed Henry as an “incompetent government minister and parliamentary representative for her constituency in Region 6.
Henry sent Burke a lawyer’s letter from Attorney Darren Wade, of Harmon & Associates, dated March 3, 2019 (an incorrect date), requesting a retraction and apology. A subsequent post appeared on Burke’s Facebook page stating that “Nicolette cannot intimidate me. Neither can she censor or suppress my freedom of speech right. I reaffirm my belief that she is an incompetent Minister and incompetent political parliamentary representative.” He told a Caribbean publication that his comments were not libelous and that they accurately reflect his belief.
Henry can neither win on the merits of her case in court nor win in the court of public opinion. First, there is plenty evidence to prove her incompetence. Foremost in the mines of the Guyana people is her embarrassing performance during the 2018 teachers’ union negotiation. Second, labelling Henry “incompetent” is not slanderous. It is an opinion of her performance. Furthermore, Burke’s comments were made in the US which is outside the jurisdiction of the Guyana Supreme Court. Moreover, Henry is a Minister of government – a public official who serves the people. Her employers are the people of Guyana. She is therefore subject to scrutiny and criticism from the people. This places her at a far higher bar for libel and defamation.
The public has a right to criticize her performance. This is what she signed up for as a candidate for political office, and when she took the ministerial oath of office. Public accountability is an inevitable function of democracy. The recent arrest of social activist Melissa Atwell for exposing alleged incidents of malpractice at Balwant Singh hospital as well as Nicolette Henry’s lawsuit against Rickford Burke for saying she’s incompetent are violations of constitutionally protected free speech in Guyana, which must be condemned.
Also deserving of scrutiny is Henry’s attorney who has obviously misguided her. In paragraphs 1and 3 of page two of their letter to Burke, the Attorney conflated Nicolette Henry with the Ministry of Education, and consequently the Government of Guyana. Therein, the Attorney made pronouncements on behalf of the “Ministry of Education” and the government, after first affirming Henry to be the client.
Letter from Henry’s Lawyer:
The Attorney General’s Chambers make legal representations and pronouncements for the government. Lawyers in the AG’s Chambers say they are unaware of this matter and are shocked by the representations made. They confirm that Henry’s Attorney cannot speak for the government.
By filing this lawsuit Henry has placed her competence on trial in the court of law as well in the court of public opinion, and inevitably that of the APNU+AFC coalition government. Will the coalition allow her to take them down with her?