IPI releases Caribbean mission report
Governments urged to repeal criminal defamation laws
By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
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."
"We were gratified with the view from government officials and others we met that criminal defamation laws should be repealed,'' said John Yearwood, world editor of The Miami Herald, who attended the mission. "IPI's leaders and its membership are more than happy to work with those we met to turn their words into action."
In Barbados, which boasts one of the region’s freest media environment, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart acknowledged the importance of enabling journalists to do their work freely and recognised that public officials should be subjects of closer scrutiny and held to a higher burden of proof in issues of defamation. The attorney general, Adriel Brathwaite, committed to reviving a currently defunct reform process to the country’s defamation act that would remove criminal penalties for libel. Read IPI’s Barbados mission report.
Members of the Dominican Republic Chamber of Deputies invited IPI delegates to return to provide advice throughout the process of redrafting its press law in line with international standards. Dominican Republic politicians affirmed the importance of respecting freedom of the press, and agreed that journalists should not face prison time for their work. Two Dominican Republic journalists have been sentenced to prison for libel this year alone. Read IPI’s Dominican Republic mission report.
IPI welcomed the intention expressed by the Jamaican government to pass a long-awaited bill that would decriminalise defamation and reform civil libel procedure, and urged legislators to consider a set of recommended changes to the law submitted by the country’s media and journalist associations. Read IPI’s Jamaica mission report.
After IPI delegates met with a number of media representatives, as well as the country’s justice minister and attorney general, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar pledged to review her country’s defamation laws and bring them in line with international standards before an audience at IPI’s 2012 World Congress in Port of Spain. The Congress also culminated in the proclamation of the Declaration of Port of Spain, which calls for the abolition of criminal “insult” and libel laws in the Caribbean, and has already receive the endorsement of numerous regional media associations. Read IPI’s Trinidad and Tobago mission report.
While the focus of the mission was on repealing criminal defamation laws, IPI delegates also learned of other critical issues facing Caribbean journalists, including a dearth of professional training opportunities, official harassment and intimidation, and a lack of government transparency or inadequate implementation of freedom of information legislation.
"IPI is committed to working with Caribbean governments and our local media partners not only to repeal criminal libel, but also to foster a independent, investigative, self-regulated media free from government interference," said Bethel McKenzie.
IPI’s mission to the Caribbean, which was led by Bethel McKenzie together with Mariela Hoyer, formerly IPI’s Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, and IPI Executive Board Vice-President Pavol Múdry, took place from June 9 to June 21, 2012. The mission was carried out in conjunction with Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), who joined the visit to Barbados. IPI also welcomed IPI board member and Miami Herald National and World Editor John Yearwood as part of its delegation to the Dominican Republic.
Read the full report here.
To learn more about IPI’s campaign to abolish criminal libel in the Caribbean, please visit the campaign’s home page.
Read IPI’s Declaration of Port of Spain here.
For further information or queries related to IPI or the release of the Caribbean mission report, please contact Scott Griffen, IPI press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, at firstname.lastname@example.org or +43 1 512 90 11.