Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has denied trying to muzzle social commentator Stephen Joachim, against whom he lashed out after Joachim said on radio, on Tuesday, that the government should account for the money it spent to build the Argyle International Airport.
Joachim, an accountant who is financial controller at the Mustique Company, made the call on Boom FM on Tuesday.
But in a call on the same station shortly afterwards, Gonsalves cast aspersions on Joachim’s performance of his duties at the Mustique Company, on whose board the government has a director.
The prime minister, who is also Minister of Finance, asked if Joachim, as a patriot, in his position at Mustique Company, ensures that all taxes due to the government are paid over.
On Wednesday, radio personality Dwight “Bing” Joseph announced that Joachim had indicated that he will no longer appear as a commentator on the programme.
“The [Mustique] Company creates a lot of jobs and needs to have [a] good relationship with government regardless of which party is in power. I can’t damage the company I work for and put at risk hundreds of people’s jobs. It’s really sad that I must be shut up,” Joseph quoted Joachim as saying in a message to him.
“Apparently, asking for accountability is an issue. I have never once attacked Ralph on a personal level. Apparently, I must be shut up at all costs,” Joseph further quoted Joachim as saying.
Joachim, however, told iWitness News later that day that he had not decided whether he would quit the radio programme.
During a call to the station on Wednesday, Gonsalves was asked if he was trying to muzzle Joachim.
The prime minister said:
“I can’t muzzle Stephen Joachim; Stephen is not employed by me. And I don’t ever –nobody can say I try to muzzle anybody, even people inside the Public Service.”
He said he always says St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a free and democratic country.
Gonsalves said Joachim incorrectly said that there were no audited statements for the state-owned International Airports Development Company (IADC) since 2008
“If you want to talk, I must have the right also to speak. And when you come and you speak two falsehoods, monumental falsehoods, you are a professional, you are a financial controller of a top company, and therefore passing yourself off as an independent voice, and you make these two monumental falsehoods about a project of such existential significance to this country, well, then you don’t expect me to respond?” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves further said he saw Joachim’s comments as a personal attack.
“The attack, which he levelled, was an attack on the government, on me, and my management of the project. You think I would manage a project with no accountability? I’d manage a project to bankrupt the country? Who is the prime minister? Who is the Minister of Finance?”
The airport, which the government said cost EC$700 million to build, opened on Feb. 14, six years behind schedule.
It came at a price almost twice what the government had initially estimated and with a further EC$400 million added to the national debt.
“This airport is driving the NDP crazy and the more it drives them crazy, the more they make a lot of stupid mistakes,” Gonsalves said of the airport, which has not seen a direct international flight since March 21, when the return leg of some charters operated.
Gonsalves said that whenever he had questions about the Mustique Company and he raised them, he get satisfactory answers, whether immediately or after.
He said he did not ask the Mustique Company any question, but asked them of Joachim, but he has not got any answers from Joachim.
Gonsalves said that the Mustique Company makes whatever set payments it has to make to the government.
He, however, said he was talking about some individual transactions which may not necessarily involve the Mustique Company but which is not the company making those transactions.
Regarding the call by the opposition for the accounts of the IADC to be laid in Parliament, Gonsalves said that the law does not demand that his government does so and has dismissed the suggestion that in the interest of transparency, his government has a moral obligation to do so.
Prominent lawyer Kay Bacchus-Baptiste supported Joachim’s position, saying on NICE Radio Tuesday night:
“Not only did he attack Stephen Joachim, he even attacked his employers, Mustique Company, and just stopped short of accusing them of maybe defrauding government stamp duty and so forth.
“… There is something amiss that can cause our dear Prime Minister to lose it this way even as he labours to defend this position that he does not have to lay the accounts before the House.”