Jamaica leads hemisphere in press freedom, but defamation laws remain an issue

By Daniel Guerra

The country in the Americas with the highest degree of press freedom may come to some as a surprise: according to Reporters Without Borders' 2013 Press Freedom Index, Jamaica holds the top spot.

The island nation came in at 13th out of the 179 countries that were reviewed for the report earlier this year, which was produced by the international organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF, by its French acronym). The index measures the degree of freedom journalists, news organizations, and “netizens” enjoy in their countries.

With its new rank, Jamaica replaced Canada -- which dropped from 10th place to the 20th -- as the country in the hemisphere with the highest rate of press freedom. As opposed to many other nations in the continent, RSF's index reported no deaths or arrests of Jamaican journalists during the past year.

RSF's ranking demonstrates continued improvement for freedom of the press in Jamaica, even while other Caribbean nations have lagged behind. Trinidad & Tobago came in at 44th due to alleged monitoring of journalists’ phone calls by the government. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), a group of nine island nations, tumbled eight spots to 34th after the RSF report cited continued political pressure on the countries’ various media groups.

Despite the many common challenges facing journalists and news organizations across the Americas and the Caribbean, high press freedom is a "tradition" in Jamaica, said Canute James, senior lecturer for the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica.

For instane, one of the provisions in the country's constitution when Jamaica won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962 states that people have the "freedom to hold opinions, to receive and impart ideas and information by correspondence and other means of communication without interference."

"It varies across the Caribbean, but it is common practice here to have a high degree of freedom," James told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "Journalists and journalism are criticized, as in any other open societies, but they are allowed to practice their profession."

More recently, the country in 2002 passed the Access to Information Act which allowed journalists and citizens to have greater transparency on government documents.

Byron Buckley, managing partner at Buckley Communications, which specializes in media training in Jamaica, told the Knight Center that the "Jamaican government does not overly interfere with or restricts the operations of the media."

Defamation laws hindering Jamaican journalism

Nonetheless, there are still some important issues to resolve when it comes to freedom of expression. The government continues to work on reforming the country’s antiquated defamation laws and measures to protect journalists from persecution. The recommendation for reforming these laws stemmed from a 2008 government report that examined the country’s defamation laws.  Among the groups advocating for the reform include the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ).

"The freedom of the local media is a significant achievement for the country and I am challenging the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration to stick to its word of tabling the amended legislation in Parliament before the end of this legislative year," PAJ president Jenni Campbell told the Jamaica Observer on January 31.

Concerns remain about a proposed amendment to a cyber crimes bill that would also raise defamation issues for Jamaican online journalists and bloggers.  Both the PAJ and MAJ have come out strongly against any proposed law that would criminalize cyber-defamation.

Christopher Barnes, managing director of the Gleaner Company media house, stated in May 2011 there the current defamation laws have led to a lack of investigative journalism in Jamaica. Additionally, many media outlets do not have the time and financial resources to fund investigative reporting.

According to MAJ, the country needs to also address other freedom of the press issues. Updates to the country's Access to Information Act have been also not been met, as well as a need for a "consultative approach" on changes to the country's broadcast legislation.

In a statement made during World Press Freedom Day held on May 3, Campbell said it was “not unusual for Caribbean governments to declare their commitment to press freedom” but it was “equally not unusual for the region’s governments to accuse media of interference” and “single out for grievous tongue lashing [journalists] who the politicians believe have done too good a job at exposing double speak or wrong information.”

Campbell also noted in her speech that Jamaican popular culture often has the “informa fi dead” mindset that sets out that people who pass along information deserve to be attacked. She adds that threats against journalists rather come in the form of job security, especially by publicly-owned media companies.

Nevertheless, noted Jamaican blogger and legal analyst Dionne Jackson Miller sums up the state of Jamaica's press under a positive light. In an article for the Jamaica Gleaner, Miller concluded that “the fact that someone who annoys the hell out of you can be on talk radio every day, the fact that government ministers call your boss to complain about what you said on radio instead of locking you up or getting you fired, are two examples of our gloriously free press that many of us take for granted. I don't.”

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.