IAPA demands Barbados authorities drop criminal charges against newspaper employees

By Diego Cruz

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called on the authorities of Barbados to drop criminal charges against three employees of the newspaper The Nation, who had allegedly violated the country's Protection of Children Act by publishing an indecent photograph of minors.

On Oct. 26, 2013, The Nation published a story titled Sex Scene featuring a photograph of two 14-year-olds engaged in a sexual act at a secondary school classroom, reported the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Even though the faces of the minors were blurred, Barbados police filed criminal charges against Nation publisher Vivian-Anne Gittens, its editor-in-chief Roy Morris, and senior journalist Sanka Price, who wrote the story. The photograph was taken from Facebook, where it was circulated along with a cell phone video filmed by two teenage classmates who are also facing charges of their own.

The three journalists were originally detained for several hours and appeared in court on Nov. 14, 2013, but the matter was adjourned to March 11 of this year, and later to July 21, according to IAPA. They face up to five years in prison each.

“The charges should be dropped, taking into account the negative consequences to freedom of the press these accusations lead to,” said Claudio Paolillo, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

Paolillo said the newspaper had evidently published the photograph and story in an effort to expose what they saw as a failure on the part of the educational institution in question, rather than an attempt to publish inappropriate images of minors.

In a Nov. 15 statement, published by The Nation, Assistant Commissioner of Police Lionel Thompson said the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) fully acknowledged “the critical role the Press plays in a liberal democratic society like [Barbados],” but that they were “legally bound to impartially enforce the criminal law” and “there was a sufficiency of evidence to support the charges that were brought.”

In the Caribbean nation of Jamaica, the newspaper The Gleaner’s editorial board published an article on Nov. 17 saying they endorsed laws that aimed to “prevent physical, social and psychological abuse of minors,” but that they had “serious reservations” over how the law had been applied to The Nation’s employees.

The issue of children having sex in school campuses was “a matter of genuine public interest,” they argued, adding that the Barbadian newspaper had blurred the minors’ faces and clearly did not intend the publication as a prurient or exploitative act.

The Jamaican newspaper's editorial board concluded their remarks saying they hoped the charges had no political undertones since it would be a “sad reversal” of the island nation’s “historic” respect for freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, the Vincentian, a newspaper in the nearby country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, published its own editorial piece asking why The Nation had published “such an explicit photograph,” and wondering if it was an “overzealous” attempt to “jolt the society into addressing the issue of sex among school children.”

Although they did not support the photograph’s publication and agreed with The Nation's employees being condemned for acting “irresponsibly,” the Vincentian’s editorial board believed the Barbadian newspaper must have had a “profound reason” to run the photograph and that pressing charges against its journalists was “losing sight of the bigger picture” of freedom of the press in Barbados.

In his statement published by IAPA, Paolillo echoed some of these sentiments.

“The condemnation itself is already an attack against freedom of the press and the possibility of imprisonment constitutes an enormous pressure over these three journalists but also over the rest of their colleagues, which could lead to self-censorship out of fear, and if made concrete, could place Barbados in a truly negative position in regard to the free exercise of journalism and freedom of expression,” Paolillo said.

There was a similar case in Ecuador in October 2012, when the newspaper El Universo was fined $500 for publishing photographs of minors posing with the nation’s President Rafael Correa. The newspaper was accused of violating Ecuador’s Children and Adolescents Code, which prohibited using minors “for political or religious proselytizing programs.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.