Jamaica fully abolishes criminal defamation, an unprecedented legislative action in the Caribbean

By Larissa Manescu

The Jamaican Parliament passed a bill on Nov. 5 that fully abolishes criminal defamation within the nation. The move is unprecedented in the Caribbean, where international and local organizations have pressured the region's governments to draft similar legislation.

Criminal defamation is a big topic of concern in the Caribbean among freedom of information organizations, which have criticized the nations' laws for not reflecting international standards of civil defamation.

The legislation in Jamaica was a product of seven years of discussion and debate among various societal players. The International Press Institute lobbied for the bill's passage and worked with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers to visit Jamaica and talk to government officials in support of local organizations such as the Media Association of Jamaica and the Press Association of Jamaica.

"There was a clear consensus in Jamaica among government, media, and civil society that criminal defamation laws are an archaic holdover from colonial times and threaten the press's ability to report freely and in the interest of the people,” said IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie, according to an article on the press organization’s website. “As we continue with our campaign to repeal criminal defamation in the Caribbean, we urge regional countries to follow Jamaica's courageous example.”

The 2013 Defamation Bill will replace the 19th-century Libel and Slander Act and the 1963 Defamation Act, and it does more than just removing criminal defamation from law. The legislation also eliminates the distinction between libel and slander, grants responsibility to judges instead of juries to determine damages in lawsuits where media organizations are found guilty of defamation and introduces a “wire service defense” that allows media organizations to use reports from reputable sources without having to verify accuracy.

With the passage of the law, Jamaica becomes the first country in the Caribbean to fully get rid of criminal defamation. Although Grenada abolished criminal defamation in October 2012, seditious libel – written or spoken conduct offensive to the government – is still a part of its criminal code.

In an email interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean Scott Griffen talked about the pervasiveness of criminal defamation in the Caribbean and its consequences on stifling freedom of expression.

According to IPI research, six Caribbean countries – Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti and Suriname - have had prosecutions for criminal defamation within the past 15 years. The most recent prosecution case was that of Cuban journalist Calixto Martínez, who was imprisoned from September 2012 to April 2013 for contempt or offense to the authorities for reporting on a cholera and dengue outbreak in the nation before the government publicly announced it.

Currently there aren't any journalists imprisoned in the region, but Griffen said that since criminal defamation is subject to abuse by those in power to protect their interests, the presence of the law breeds self-censorship among journalists who are intimidated to write about controversial topics out of fear of repercussion.

“Throughout the region there is a shortage of reporting on corruption, on the effects of certain economic activities such as mining and financial services, and on the influence of foreign countries with interests in the Caribbean,” Griffen said.

Media organizations in Jamaica have said that they have discarded potentially contentious stories in the past because of the risk of being sued, according to an AP report.

Griffen also commented that the relatively high press freedom indexes of English-speaking Caribbean nations -- Jamaica was the highest ranked nation in the Americas reviewed by Reporters without Borders in its 2013 Press Freedom Index -- may not be telling the whole story. The adviser said that while Caribbean countries may have relatively free presses in comparison to their Latin American neighbors, the real problems that do exist in the region, such as criminal defamation and self-censorship, should not be belittled.

IPI started working on its Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean in 2012 with the goal of reforming defamation laws in the region. So far, representatives have traveled to various countries on two separate missions for the campaign in which they have spoken with both government and civil society and produced comprehensive reports about the status of defamation laws within specific nations after each trip.

IPI has visited Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname. Bills that partially decriminalize defamation are being considered in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, while the government of Antigua and Barbuda told IPI that a bill to repeal criminal defamation will be introduced in its Parliament early next year.

UN, OSCE and OAS Special Mandates state, “Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws,” according to the website of human rights organization ARTICLE 19.

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.