Thursday, 19 April 2012

IPI Caribbean Missions to Focus on Abolishing Criminal Defamation

Visits to Four Countries Part of Broader Campaign 

A police officer stands guard at the venue of the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. REUTERS/Jorge Silva.

VIENNA, Apr 18, 2012 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today announced it will conduct missions to four Caribbean countries this summer as the next step in an ongoing effort to abolish criminal defamation laws in the region.

IPI Representatives, including Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, will travel in June to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago to meet with government, media, and civil society representatives on decriminalising libel offenses. The missions are a continuation of IPI's previous work on the subject, including a previous mission to Jamaica in December of last year.

"The upcoming missions are a critical element of our broader campaign to repeal criminal defamation-laws across the Caribbean region," explained Pavol Mudry, Vice Chair of IPI’s Executive Board, who will join the mission. "Working together with local media and politicians, we will present our case that criminalised libel is a relic of colonialism and has no place in a modern, democratic Caribbean."

All 13 independent states in the Caribbean maintain criminal defamation laws, with each providing a penalty of at least one year in prison. Libel deemed seditious or obscene remains a separate offence in a majority of Caribbean countries and generally entails stiffer punishments, with prison sentences of up to five years in certain cases.

While defamation statutes in many parts of the world remain largely dormant, the Caribbean has witnessed active criminal libel prosecution over the past 15 years, including in the Dominican Republic this January. Cases have also been recently brought in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada.

Mudry continued: “IPI believes strongly in the importance of ethical, responsible journalism, and we recognise that there are times when the news media does indeed cross the line. But libel cases, where they exist, belong in civil courts, not in criminal courts. Journalists, particularly those investigating corruption or abuse of power, should not face imprisonment for their work – unfortunately, this is exactly what these laws provide for.

“When the media is forced to consider censoring itself in order to avoid criminal charges, the free flow of information – essential to any democracy - is threatened,” he added.

Particularly in the English-speaking Caribbean, many of the laws in place are near-exact replicas of colonial-era acts dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Lord Campbell’s Act (formally known as the Libel Act 1843), which serves as the foundation for a number of similar statutes across the Caribbean, was largely repealed in England itself in 2009.

IPI's mission to the Dominican Republic comes after a radio journalist, Jhonny Alberto Salazar, was found guilty of libelling a local lawyer and sentenced to six months in jail and fined one million pesos (€20,000) - 500 times the amount allowed under the country's laws. Salazar's conviction followed the Aug. 2011 murder of radio and television journalist José Agustín Silvestre de los Santos, who was at the time being prosecuted for defaming a public official. The visit will also concretise IPI's growing engagement in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, which includes a call this week for authorities in the Dominican Republic to respect press freedom in the run-up to next month’s presidential election.

In Jamaica, IPI will follow up on its successful series of meetings in December in Kingston with government officials regarding a pending legislative proposal to reform the country's defamation laws. IPI will urge the recently elected People's National Party, led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, to finalise the proposed changes.

IPI believes that Barbados can solidify its reputation for having one of the freest media environments in the Caribbean by abolishing criminalised libel. The ruling Democratic Labour Party included changes to the Defamation Act in its 2008 electoral manifesto, but legislative efforts have since stalled.

The mission to Trinidad and Tobago coincides with IPI's 2012 Annual World Congress in Port of Spain from June 23-26. Criminal defamation will be a key topic of discussion among media experts and politicians from around the world at this year’s Congress.

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