Wednesday, 29 August 2012

ENDING CRIMINAL DEFAMATION IN THE CARIBBEAN


This is an op-ed published by the International Press Institute

Criminal libel law was born in Elizabethan England as a means to silence unwelcome dissent. Today, while the press plays an essential role in shaping public discourse worldwide, in many Caribbean nations these same archaic laws live on.

Often there is no clear demarcation or standard for determining the line between fair criticism and criminal offense. In the past two years, Caribbean criminal defamation cases have included a government official who charged a previous campaign opponent with the crime, as well as a lawsuit which resulted from accusations made at a town hall meeting.

These cases exemplify the elasticity of laws wielded by those in positions of power, and underscore the capricious nature of their implementation. The mere threat of prosecution often chills investigative journalism and free speech. It also helps to sustain corruption, unnecessarily protects public officials, and is used to deny the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.

In short, criminal libel law is one of the most pernicious media constraints in contemporary society. Implemented at the will of any “insulted” public official, it frequently leaves no recourse for the defendant.

In response, the International Press Institute (IPI) has been actively campaigning for the removal of criminal libel laws, along with numerous civil society and media partners throughout the region.  Banishing these unnecessary and arbitrary laws, and utilising civil remedies as alternatives are the goals. 

Substantial progress is being made, even as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights joined together recently to name criminalisation of defamation as one of the ten biggest threats to freedom of expression.

For example, via a series of IPI press freedom missions in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, the governments of each of these nations have now publicly re-stated their commitment to an independent press.

In June, IPI hosted a World Congress event in Trinidad, whose delegates collectively endorsed the Declaration of Port of Spain. Calling for the immediate abolition of "insult laws" and criminal defamation legislation throughout the region, the Declaration also states that "the Caribbean urgently needs a strong, free and independent media to act as a watchdog over public institutions".

Governments often argue their need for strong measures as a defence against scurrilous journalism, however free societies are founded on the open exchange of opinions, popular or not. Certainly, while repercussions for careless or slanderous speech are necessary, they should, if necessary, take place in civil courtrooms, not jail cells, and as the result of regulations which both allow for, and encourage, active dialogue within a safe public marketplace of ideas.

We’ve evolved a great deal since the 16th century origin of these antiquated criminal libel laws. However, in the 21st century, stifling public discourse and institutionalised repression cannot stand in nations which adhere to democratic principles. And so while many Caribbean countries have already publicly repudiated criminal libel, we now call upon these same governments to join in the progress of freedom of expression, to recognise their existing criminal libel laws as detrimental, and to finally remove them from their books once and for all.