Grenada, CMC - As he gets ready to face an electorate in a general election on February 19, Grenada’s Prime Minister Tillman Thomas is patting himself on the back as it relates to repealing legislation regarding criminal libel in his tiny Caribbean island.
“We are the only country in the Caribbean that has spoken about repealing the legislation and actually doing so,” he told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), citing the need for the media to “be able to carry out its function without much hindrance”.
But while Grenada would have repealed criminal libel laws in July 2012, references to seditious libel remain in the Criminal Code, even though Prime Minister Thomas in an address to media workers in December said that these laws would be removed soon.
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar officially announced defamation reform in November last year in a speech that coincided with the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress held in Port of Spain.
A bill to repeal criminal defamation in Jamaica, introduced in 2011, awaits a final series of negotiations on content, but the government has said defamation reform is a high priority.
But despite these seemingly “positive” developments, a study by the Vienna-based IPI released earlier this week provides a damning insight into the situation in the Caribbean.
IPI says “everywhere” in the Caribbean, a journalist can be sent to prison for doing his /her job and based the position on a comprehensive legal review of 16 Caribbean countries that maintain “some form of criminal defamation that could result in imprisonment”.
IPI said that of the 16 countries, Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Haiti, have seen journalists criminally prosecuted for defamation within the last 15 years.
Prime Minister Thomas points out however that the case referred to in his country, dates back to the period when the New National Party (NNP) of then prime minister Dr. Keith Mitchell had taken newspaper editor George Worme to court, resulting in the closure of the newspaper, the GRENADA TODAY in 2009.
Since its establishment in 1990, the weekly newspaper had been a thorn in the side of the Mitchell administration convinced that it was corrupt and therefore had a duty to expose it.
Thomas said that “good governance” would be one of the records his government would use as a campaign strategy, given “the manner in which we have created opportunities for Grenadians by strengthening institutions”.
IPI said it conducted the independent review as part of its campaign to repeal all criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean, which kicked off last year with advocacy visits to Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
“IPI’s review provides the most complete picture yet of criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
“International consensus holds that such laws are incompatible with freedom of expression and that the venue for the resolution of defamation claims should be a civil courtroom. Unfortunately, the results of our research reveal a sizeable gap between the constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression found in virtually every Caribbean country and the legal reality on the ground.”
She said that while prosecutions for defamation have occurred in just a handful of Caribbean nations in recent times, “so long as these laws remain on the books in any country, there exists the potential for their misuse to punish journalism critical of those in power.”
President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), Wesley Gibbings, said he welcomed the IPI report, noting the regional umbrella body was also “associating ourselves with this IPI report which benefited from contributions from our organisation.
“The picture it paints is of a geographical region torn by authoritarian historical antecedents and its stated desire to strengthen democratic traditions,” he told CMC, adding “in some instances, I would say the outlook for change is relatively positive while in others we are lagging seriously behind.
“The removal of criminal defamation from our statute books ought not, in the present context of our development, be as painful a measure as our governments make it appear.”
The Organisation of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero, in a statement to sent to the Vienna-based media group to coincide with the release of the report, reaffirmed the OAS’s concern over criminal defamation laws, particularly when they punish offensive speech directed at public officials.
She specifically recalls the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which establishes that when relating to matters of public interest “[t]he protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions”, and that laws punishing insult or contempt of public officials “restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.
“These principles are key to facilitating open and uninhibited debate about matters of public concern, which is an indispensable condition for the functioning of a democratic society,” she added.
IPI said that defamation may be understood as a communication “usually an allegation or accusation, either written or spoken, containing a statement that harms the reputation or honour of the subject of the communication” while libel refers to “defamation expressed through the written word, while slander indicates oral defamation”
It said with the exception of Grenada, every state in the English-speaking Caribbean has specific criminal libel laws on the books, with offenders facing a minimum of six months to one year in prison.
In St. Lucia for example, the laws there “provide the harshest penalties (with) intentional libel there can result in up to five years behind bars”.
Separately from criminal libel, IPI said that its research found that seditious libel laws, which also carry criminal penalties, remain in force in every English-speaking Caribbean country except Jamaica and Barbados.
IPI found that these laws were often vaguely defined, noting that in Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda, “seditious speech can refer to that which “raises discontent or disaffection” among inhabitants”.
Importing “any seditious publication” and “promot(ing) feelings of ill-will” between different classes of the population are also included.
Particularly troubling for IPS were the laws of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, which contemplate prison terms of up to five years for “seditious libel” and “libel with a seditious intent.”
Despite their political independence from Britain, nearly all Caribbean countries that have retained the British monarch as head of state specifically outlaw speech that “brings into hatred or contempt” the person of the sovereign.
“Punishments for insulting the Queen range from up to two years in prison in Grenada and Belize (classified as a misdemeanour in both) to five years in St. Lucia,” IPI noted.
It said that laws in Cuba and the Dominican Republic address, in general, three forms of defamation offences that are also common in other Spanish-speaking countries namely defamation, insults or invective not accompanied by a specific accusation and contempt of authority.
“The statutes of the Dominican Republic related to defamation, found in the Penal Code and the press law (Law No. 6132), are among the most extensive in the Caribbean, with separate provisions and escalating penalties for insulting private individuals, lower-ranking public officials, high ranking officials, and the head of state, respectively.”
IPI said that it would continue its lobby efforts in 2013 and its advocacy mission would begin in April to the Dominican Republic, Suriname, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda. Plans are also afoot to visit Cuba and St. Lucia in the near future.
“That we should have to make the case for such a move against all kinds of odds in 2013 tells us a much bigger story about the Caribbean reality. This flies in the face of some rather lofty rhetoric from our politicians. For the moment, it is not a flattering tale,” Gibbings added.