BELIZE CITY, Wed. Apr. 13, 2016–The former Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) Secretary General, Iris Myrtle Palacio, has filed a lawsuit claiming that an article and accompanying cartoon published by The Guardian newspaper, the party organ of the governing United Democratic Party (UDP), were acts of libel against her.
Both Palacio and the Guardian editor, Alfonso Noble, took the witness stand when the case came up this morning in the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin.
Just prior to the January 2015 bi-election in Cayo, December, 2014, The Guardian ran a story captioned “PUP Secretary General endorses the use of witchcraft in politics,” and the cartoon at the bottom of the page on which the article was printed contained a caricature of Palacio chopping off the head of a chicken, with the caption, “PUP Election Preparation.”
In December 2014, Palacio was a guest on the PUP’s Positive Vibes morning talk show, where she complained bitterly about a returning officer, Marcelo Windsor. This was after nomination day in Cayo. The PUP’s Joseph Mahmud had resigned and the two parties were getting ready to contest the bi-election to replace him.
According to the recording of the Positive Vibes talk show played in court, when a caller to the station suggested that the returning officer should be reported to the creator, Palacio told the caller that a candle should be burned on Windsor and she suggested that she could provide the caller with the color of the candle to be burned.
In his defense, Noble, who was defended by the UDP’s legal advisor Michael Young, SC, played a portion of the Positive Vibes Radio and TV talk show on a DVD player in the courtroom so that the court could hear Palacio’s comment to the caller.
Under cross-examination from Palacio’s attorney, the Rt. Hon. Said Musa, Noble admitted that “the cartoon looks to me like somebody practicing witchcraft.”
When Musa suggested to Noble that to accuse someone of practicing witchcraft, is disparaging, Noble replied that doing so is not nice.
In his witness statement, Noble said, “The article, subject of the claim, was written on the factual basis of statements made on the Vibes television talk show of 23 December 2014, including statements made by the Claimant. The talk show hosts at the time were Albert Vaughan, Marshall Nunez and the Claimant….”
The testimony phase of the trial is over and the attorneys were instructed to make written submissions to the Chief Justice before returning to court on April 27, when they will make verbal arguments based on the skeletons in their written submissions.
Following the hearing, both sides spoke to reporters.
“I feel very strongly at the time and even more so now as we come under attack as a people in Belize, that particularly the headline which spoke to the cartoon that was at the bottom, which to me disparages a very important part of the Dugu ceremony, the cock-killing ceremony …
“Certainly, that cartoon was there to back up whatever nonsense was in the article, and it was very disparaging to me as a Belizean and as a Garifuna Belizean,” said Palacio.
One reporter asked Noble for his response to the comparison between Ms. Palacio’s situation and the remarks made by Pastor Scott Stirm on the Garifuna Dugu ceremony.
“Well, Ms. Palacio can say what she wants; the article is there, it is very plain, it is an article of truth. She said certain statements, she uttered certain things and I recorded on them. She said candles must be burnt over his head, and that is to me endorsing witchcraft,” Noble explained.
Attorney Young pointed out, “We should add, too, that in cross-examination of Mr. Noble, Mr. Musa wanted to go into that direction and the court refused. Why? For the same reason I’m stating now; what the Pastor [Stirm] says is what the Pastor says.”
Attorney Musa was asked if the remarks in The Guardian were not a fair comment, given what Palacio had said in the recording that was played in court.
“Well, it’s a very technical argument, which I will deal with in my written submission to the judge, the issue of fair comment, but I will just say this much at this stage: fair comment must be based on a factual foundation for you to plead fair comment. And just to say, as Ms. Palacio said in the transcript that was played back this morning, that a caller had called in and suggested a way of dealing with Mr. Windsor, who is the returning officer, and she was saying no, no, don’t get down to that, which could have a very serious negative implication; but she was saying just light the candle and pray for this man, basically, that’s what she was saying. But of course they are interpreting that to mean the practice of witchcraft,” responded Musa.
Noble insists that there was no malice intended by the article and the cartoon.