Former government minister and self-professed freelance social media journalist Devant Maharaj’s lawsuit over being denied access to the Government’s virtual press conferences on the COVID-19 pandemic is set to go on trial on Friday.
During a preliminary electronic hearing held last Friday, High Court Judge Kevin Ramcharan deemed the case urgent and agreed to have a rolled-up hearing.
Under normal circumstances, Ramcharan would have had to first grant Maharaj leave to pursue his judicial review lawsuit based on an assessment of his case before having a trial to determine the substantive issues raised within.
In the rolled-up hearing, Ramcharan is expected to deal with both aspects at the same time.
In his lawsuit, Maharaj is contending that Communications Minister Donna Cox discriminated against him by ignoring his two official requests, which were made on April 12 and 15.
Maharaj’s lawyers alleged that Cox’s handling of his requests compromised and violated his constitutional rights to freedom of the press, protection of the law, and equality of treatment from a public authority.
Cox sought to give her version of the events in her affidavit filed in the case, earlier this week.
Cox explained that virtual press conferences are hosted by the Ministry of Health with logistical help from her ministry.
She claimed that attendance requests from journalists are sent to the communications specialist at her ministry but invitations are then forwarded to the journalists by the Ministry of Health.
Stating that Maharaj is a politician associated with the United National Congress (UNC), Cox questioned the bona fides of his organisation “D News Network” and his claims of journalistic experience.
“I am aware that, like many politicians, he maintains a Facebook presence as such,” Cox said.
Cox also sought to explain the inclusion of social media personality Rhoda Bharath and her organisation NewSauce as she (Cox) claimed that she is a former member of a traditional media house and is an online media voice on social media.
“I am not aware of Ms Bharath’s political affiliation or whether she is a supporter of the Government. As I said earlier, I know her in her professional capacity,” Cox said.
Cox also sought to directly respond to Maharaj’s complaint about a Facebook post made by her on April 15, in which she tagged Bharath and others with the caption “today is your day”.
Cox said admitted that she received the requests from Maharaj but claimed that she was only able to locate and read them after the lawsuit was filed, due to the large volume of emails she receives on a daily basis.
“I have since considered his request and I am unable to see how it is appropriate for him to attend the COVID-19 media briefings when he is a politician and that forum is not intended for politicians but rather for members of the media,” Cox said.