Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Editorial | PM mustn’t chill press freedom

Published:Monday | August 8, 2016 | 8:00 AM

Having had time to reflect and appreciate the merit of his case, Prime Minister Andrew Holness won't bother to appeal last week's lifting, by Justice Chester Stamp, of the injunction that prevented further airing of the '18 Degrees North' programme on his controversial Beverly Hills mansion and his real estate dealings, generally.

Indeed, as a declaration of his embrace of press freedom, to which this newspaper believes the prime minister holds, Mr Holness should abandon the case altogether, lest he fan that chilling effect that discourages serious discourse on matters of public interest, on which democracy thrives.

Independent journalist Zahra Burton is the producer of '18 Degrees North', a syndicated television news programme. Earlier this year, Ms Burton's outfit made a documentary on the construction, financing and mode of ownership of Mr Holness' Beverly Hills house, which was a source of debate in the campaign for last February's general election. The programme's reporting also focused on other real estate owned by Mr Holness, as well as payment of taxes due on these properties.

The document was broadcast by TVJ, a member of the Radio Jamaica Group of which this newspaper is part. But before it could be rebroadcast, Mr Holness obtained an injunction preventing its further airing, on the grounds that this would cause damage to the prime minister.

There are a number of facts to be noted about this issue, not least of which is that '18 Degrees North's' reporting was based substantially on publicly available information posted on the website of Tax Administration Jamaica (TAJ), as well as from the National Land Agency (NLA).

Further, the schedule to Jamaica's 2013 Defamation Act, the outcome of reform championed by Bruce Golding, Mr Holness' predecessor as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), lists the following among the statements subject to qualified privilege in defamation cases: "A copy or fair and accurate report or summary of any notice or other matter issued for the information of the public by or on behalf of any government department, officer of the government or local authority."

It would seem to this newspaper that information from TAJ and the NLA would fall within the embrace of this protection, unless perversely reported and interpreted by the person who publishes or broadcasts it.

 

NEITHER IRRESPONSIBLE NOR UNFAIR

 

Moreover, as Justice Stamp agreed, and defence lawyers in the cases have been highlighting, it is unusual for pretrial injunctions to be granted in defamation cases, unless the defendant had no substantive defence.

While neither Mr Holness nor anyone else should be the subject of falsehoods, no one in this case could credibly claim that Ms Burton and her reporters engaged in journalism that could be described as irresponsible or unfair - however much they may dislike what they had to say. But the lawsuit is potentially detrimental to transparency and good governance.

The greater likelihood is that in a court of law, Mr Holness' suit would be defeated. But that is likely to be at a significant cost, in legal fees, time and the fear of skittish sponsors, to a small, independent media operation like Ms Burton's and others like hers. Therein lies its chilling effect.

As a young leader who declares himself welcoming of robust debate and transparency in public life as tools against corruption, Mr Holness should be wary of the frigidity that may well be spawned by his action.