Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Media: Caribbean governments urged to repeal criminal defamation laws

Source: International Press Institute 

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, Oct 15, 2012 – The International Press Institue (IPI) today released a final report on its June mission to four Caribbean countries, cautiously welcoming progress in three of them toward the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws but urging political leaders to remain committed to reform.

During the nearly two-week long mission, IPI delegates met with representatives of government, law enforcement, media, and civil society in Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago as part of IPI's campaign to decriminalise defamation across the Caribbean.

"Overall, we are pleased with the outcome of our visit to the Caribbean and I am confident that our campaign is off to a good start,” said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, who led the mission. “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. I believe we still have some way to go in convincing Barbados to lead the way in repealing criminal defamation, but was encouraged that the Prime Minister has agreed to revisit the issue."

Bethel McKenzie urged political leaders to summon the political will necessary to complete the decriminalisation process. "Recognising the threat that criminal libel laws pose to a free society is only the first step," she emphasised, noting that civil courts were better suited to handle libel claims.

Nearly all independent states in the Caribbean have criminal defamation laws on their books that establish a penalty of at least one year in prison. The Caribbean has witnessed several criminal libel prosecutions over the last 15 years, including two in the Dominican Republic this year.

IPI's campaign and the mission in particular were prompted by concern that criminal-defamation laws could be used by prominent figures to chill critical opinion and squelch investigations into alleged wrongdoings in order to protect their economic and political interests. Even where criminal defamation laws are not actively applied, their existence encourages self-censorship on issues of public interest.

"The IPI press freedom mission to selected Caribbean states in June marked a singularly significant milestone in the work of advocates here to promote greater official and public awareness of the specific conditions to ensure sustained adherence to the objective of a free press," commented Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers.

"The continued presence of criminal defamation as a feature of our legal environment is a slur on claims that our countries thrive in an environment of openness, transparency and freedom. There are warning signs that much more work needs to be done to secure the guarantee of even those freedoms listed in our bills of rights."

Gibbings added: "IPI continues to play an important role in working with organisations such as the ACM in pursuing such goals."

Read the full report here