Ara Macao: that was the development project that proposed to build a two hundred and sixty room hotel, four hundred and sixty condos, a hundred thousand square foot casino and an eighteen-hole golf course on the northern end of the Placencia peninsula. And while years of public controversy, regulatory red tape and uncertain financing have mired the initiative in the sand, today’s case in the Supreme Court had nothing to do with environmental compliance or economic impact. This morning in the Supreme Court chairman of the Ara Macao Development Company, Paul Goguen, sued the group Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development for damages, asserting that separate articles that appeared on its website in June 2006 libeled him personally and embarrassed his company. During the proceedings, Goguen’s attorney, Elson Kaseke, argued that the stories, entitled “A reality check for Ara Macao” and “Setting the Record Straight from the Peninsula’s Perspective” contained defamatory statements. But when he rose to address the court, the lawyer representing the citizen’s group, Oscar Sabido contended that the statements were fair comment and protected as free speech. When he made his ruling, Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh maintained that he had read both articles in their entirety and while they were (quote) “not friendly” or “welcoming”, only (quote) “a heightened sensitivity would have read between the lines to find they are truly defamatory”. In short, case dismissed. As Goguen and Kaseke left the courtroom, they expressed surprise at the CJ’s decision.
“I know you’ve contended you’ve spent millions on this project. What does this do to you personally?”
Paul Goguen, Chair, Ara Macao Dev. Co.
“I really have no comment.”
Elson Kaseke, Attorney, Ara Macao
“If I can speak for my client, I think it is a little bit nonsensical for us to say if we are being told you are setting a wedge of village against village, you are selling golden dreams that you’re character is not being defamed.”
“Do you think this sets a bad precedent?”
“Some of these judgements are becoming too suspect I think.”
“Do you think this sets a bad precedent for developers on a whole under public scrutiny?”
“It depends ... unfortunately it sets some of us to have a little bit of misgivings about the justice system because if you are being told you are setting villager against villager, you are driving a wedge between people, you are selling golden dreams and the judge comes and says that was not defamatory, that is totally disheartening and it leaves some of us to review the justice system and have some concerns about it.”
Mary Toy, Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development
“I didn’t look at this as so much a vindication of our work against Ara Macao or about Ara Macao but the right of Belizeans to express their beliefs and their opinions. If what Mr. Kaseke had been proposing, that only comments could have been given to NEAC and nothing could have gone on television or newspapers, what would that have done to our society because if that had been accepted, it would not have been confined to environmental problems, it would have gone to social issues, things like AIDS and abuse of women. It’s just a vindication of the Belizean’s right to say what they want to say in a legitimate way.”
“Ara Macao’s developers are already indicating they are considering appealing of this order. Are you ready for the long haul?”
“I guess we have to be.”
The Placencia citizens group had filed a counter suit against Goguen, asserting that he had libeled them in an article he penned that was published on the Government of Belize website. But the CJ promptly dismissed that claim and ordered each side to bear its own legal costs.