THE INTERNATIONAL Press Institute (IPI) has welcomed the intention expressed by the Jamaican Government to pass a long-awaited bill that would decriminalise defamation and reform civil libel procedure.
The IPI in its final report on its June mission to four Caribbean countries urged Jamaican legislators to consider a set of recommended changes to the law submitted by the country's media and journalist associations.
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.
The IPI said it cautiously welcomes progress in three of the countries towards the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws, but is urging political leaders to remain committed to reform.
"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."
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 Media Workers.