New report urges repeal of Caribbean countries’ criminal defamation laws

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  • October 17, 2012

By Daniel Guerra

Several Caribbean nations have pledged to reform their criminal defamation laws but must continue to work to fully repeal them, according to a new report published by the International Press Institute (IPI).

The report highlights the four Caribbean countries of Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago, along with their existing laws on criminal defamation. There are concerns that these laws hinder critical coverage and investigations into alleged wrongdoings and are used to threaten legal action against journalists and civil society groups. The report was an initiative from the IPI World Congress 2012, held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago this past June.

“In three of the countries that we visited, top elected officials expressed agreement with our position that criminal libel laws are colonial-era relics designed to suppress dissent and criticism and have no place in the modern democracies of the Caribbean,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
Members of IPI travelled to the four countries and spoke with government officials, journalists, and civil society groups.

According to the report, all 13 independent Caribbean countries have criminal defamation laws on their books. Current law in Barbados states defamation in printed and broadcast materials, can carry punishments of up to $2,000 and a year in prison. Jamaica, which is the highest ranked Caribbean country in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, proposed a piece of legislation to repeal its libel law in 2011. The Jamaican House of Representatives has not voted on it.

The report also looks into the recent case of Dominican journalist Johnny Alberto Salazar, who was given a six month prison sentence in January 2012 after being charged for slander and libel. That sentence was later overturned by an appeal courts.

All four countries highlighted in the IPI report have filed recent legislation to repeal or reform their criminal defamation laws, although none have successfully enacted them. In addition to recommending their passage, the IPI report recommends changes to the countries’ respective media industries. Among those recommendations are strong self-regulatory measures to promote more responsible journalism.

The Trinidad Express newspaper in Trinidad & Tobago wrote in an October 16 op-ed that a criminal libel law “undermines the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press guaranteed in the Constitution” and “just as Parliament has protected speech in order to ensure robust debate, so too do progressive libel laws help both journalists and citizens to treat more effectively with public matters.”

The full report can be found here.

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.