By Aaron Humes
Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) is seeking the return of Great Belize Productions Limited as well as $10 million it alleges its former owners illegally used to finance the television production company and to buy shares in it.
The now state-owned telecommunications company faces an appeal from Great Belize Productions, the parent company of Great Belize Television (Channel 5); its chief shareholders, Channel Overseas Investments Limited, Katalyst Developments Limited and Thames Ventures Limited; as well as several other companies tied to the “Ashcroft Alliance” which had owned BTL, and former BTL directors Philip Zuniga and Keith Arnold.
Justices Dennis Morrison, Christopher Blackman and Minnet Hafiz-Bertram presided over the appeal, heard on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
The appellants seek a reversal of then-Acting Chief Justice Samuel Awich’s decision in May of 2011 against a strike-out of the summary judgment he previously issued in favour of BTL.
BTL, represented by Senior Counsel Michael Young, alleges that Channel Overseas, Katalyst and Thames, all subsidiaries of BTL at the time of the nationalization, participated in a divestment of BTL’s investment in Great Belize Productions on August 23, 2009, the Sunday before the first nationalization of BTL by the Government of Belize.
Previously, BTL had provided some $5 million in financing to Great Belize Productions, which it wrote off at the time of the divestment, and separately bought shares in the company. To protect it from the nationalization, it was spun out to Katalyst which then divided ownership between Channel Overseas, based in Nevis, and Thames.
The companies argue that neither they nor the ex-BTL directors can be sued for their actions because they are protected by an indemnity clause and separate deed of indemnity from all liabilities, costs, charges and other matters incurred under their leadership.
Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay and Jose Alpuche argued in court that the companies themselves made no decisions, only the BTL directors in relation to them, and those decisions were in any event within their power to make. Therefore no cause of action lies against them.
But according to Young, their actions were deliberately intended to leave BTL millions poorer, while increasing Great Belize’s value and establishing it as a “voice against the Government.”
But despite the Government initially saying at the time of the first nationalization that BTL was not interested in Channel 5, Young now says the company was wrongfully removed from BTL’s portfolio of assets and should be returned. He pointed out that smaller shareholders were not able to participate in the divestment and lost out on potential benefits.
Like several other cases decided in Belize , this case will be impacted by the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice on the nationalization cases which come up in December. The 2009 acquisition was not upheld by either the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, while the 2011 acquisition, buttressed by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, was also largely rejected by the Supreme Court. However, the Court of Appeal in a majority decision, ruled that the 2011 nationalization was valid.