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Devant Maharaj

DEREK ACHONG

Former government minister and self-professed freelance social media journalist Devant Maharaj is expected to learn the fate of his lawsuit over access to the Government’s virtual press conferences on the COVID-19 pandemic next week.

High Court Judge Kevin Ramcharan reserved his decision in the case yesterday evening after presiding over the trial of the case via video conference.

Ramcharan said his judgement should be ready by next Friday for the latest, but the suggested deadline would be dependent on the parties providing submissions on an application for disclosure of a document, which Maharaj’s lawyers claim is vital to the case, in a timely manner.

Presenting submissions on Maharaj’s behalf his lawyer Anand Ramlogan, SC, contended Communications Minister Donna Cox discriminated against him and breached his constitutional right to equality of treatment from a public authority by refusing his request while granting those of similar social media “voices”.

“This is a case of different strokes for different folks,” Ramlogan said.

Ramlogan questioned Cox’s suggestion that he was a politician and not a journalist as he claimed that his client had served as a newspaper columnist, a chief executive of a media house (Radio and TV Jagriti), and as a radio talk show host over the past two decades. While he noted that Maharaj is a supporter of the United National Congress, he stated that Maharaj had not mounted a political platform for over five years.

Ramlogan also claimed that the distinction between politicians and journalists being claimed by Cox was immaterial as there were numerous international and local examples of partisan media companies and journalists, who have practised before and after offering themselves for public office.

In the case, Maharaj is seeking to compare his circumstance to that of social media personality Rhoda Bharath and her organisation NewSauce, which were allowed to participate with Cox’s blessing in the press briefings.

Ramlogan pointed out that while Cox and corporate communications officials from both the Ministry of Communications and Health claimed that Maharaj had failed to seek to attend other Government press conferences prior to his request, last month, they provided no evidence of Bharath’s long-standing participation.

Ramlogan also pointed to the fact that the Media Association of T&T (MATT) had complained of political operatives infiltrating or seeking to infiltrate the press briefings.

Responding to Ramlogan’s submissions, Senior Counsel Reginald Armour repeatedly maintained that Maharaj could not be classified as a journalist.

Armour suggested that as a result, he could not seek to compare himself to persons such Bharath, who he claimed had the journalistic pedigree.

However, he failed to point to any evidence of this save and except Cox’s evidence over her (Bharath’s) former role in an unnamed media house.

He also criticised Ramlogan for questioning Bharath’s bonafides as he noted that she was not involved in the case.

Armour also suggested that Maharaj’s case as initially pleaded should fail as Cox never refused his requests as suggested.

“There was no conscious decision not to notice Mr Maharaj,” Armour said.

He noted that Cox’s schedule was hectic due to her role as a Cabinet member during the pandemic and that she could not be criticised for failing to respond to his official requests made on April 12 and 15, though she somewhat acknowledged them in an interview with another non-traditional media house.

Armour said that as a politician Maharaj was not deprived of questioning Government officials as he could do so, through his colleagues in Parliament.

Armour also noted that MATT never complained of the non-inclusion of legitimate journalists in its correspondence.

Maharaj is also being represented by Douglas Bayley, Ganesh Saroop, and Jared Jagroo. Vanessa Gopaul and Rishi Dass appeared alongside Armour for the State.