PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (CMC) — The news was not all gloom and doom for Latin America and the Caribbean.
But while the Austria-based International Press Institute (IPI) was praising the fact that no journalists in the Caribbean region had been killed during the first six months of this year, it was not the case for other countries in the Americas where at least 14 journalist were killed "depressing hopes that total deaths in 2011 would drop significantly from the highs of 31 and 28 seen respectively last year and in 2009".
The IPI, however, expressed alarm over press freedom development with regards to the Caribbean, noting that for the first six months of 2011 "the Dominican Republic and Haiti have been the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Caribbean".
Bethel McKenzie, IPI director, who was in Trinidad to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), told a news conference that "press freedom issues in the Caribbean are sometimes obscured by a focus on other parts of the world in which journalists are killed in higher numbers.
"It is important to underscore that there are very real press freedom concerns in the Caribbean, notably the widespread prevalence of criminal defamation laws, which can fuel self-censorship, and which must be abolished," she added.
"We intend to launch a campaign against criminal defamation, not only in Europe but in the Caribbean. So you will be hearing a lot more from us and a lot more from our partners."
"Whether or not criminal defamation is used against the media is irrelevant. It's because it's on the books all it takes is one person, one leader to say I don't like what that journalist wrote or broadcast and they can put that journalist in jail and we do not believe that journalists should go to jail for doing their job. "There is no other profession where you go to jail for doing your job; for getting up, going to work and reporting the facts, at least not in the numbers that journalists are going to jail and being abused and assaulted around the world."
ACM president Wesley Gibbings said legislation regarding criminal defamation in the Caribbean was not dormant and has been used in countries like Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda.
Gibbings said in 2007 the Jamaica Government appointed a commission to examine that area of law and the final report was laid in the Parliament last year.
He said the report indicated Jamaica should do away with the law of criminal defamation and all other pieces of legislation which had the effects of criminalising speech and expression.
"That report has since been accepted by the Parliament of Jamaica and a few weeks ago it was announced that the legislature will soon be entertaining a bill that would seek to correct the anomalies recognised by the commission," Gibbings said.
IPI said that journalists in the Dominican Republic have faced a wave of aggression, with the country's Journalism Guild recording more than 30 incidents against media workers so far this year.
It said that the press freedom situation also remained dire in Haiti and that while Cuba has released the last of 29 journalists detained during the 2003 "Black Spring" crackdown, it has continued "to foster a repressive media environment".
IPI, which is partnering with the ACM to host its 2012 World Congress and 61st General Assembly here, said that self-censorship based on fear of violent reprisal by criminal gangs or other powerful interests continued to be a problem in many parts of the region "while journalists in former colonies faced the threat of jail and debilitating fines and legal costs under archaic laws criminalising defamation.
The Austria-based media group said it was when the authorities in the Dominican Republic in February brought criminal charges against the police who allegedly plotted to murder lawyer and television host Jordi Veras last year. Veras survived an ambush on June 2 outside the television studios in Santiago where he worked.
However, IPI said it was condemning the criminal prosecution of television presenter Jose Agustin Silvestre de los Santos, who faces charges for allegedly insulting and defaming prosecutor Jose Polanco Ramirez by linking him to drug traffickers.
According to the IPI, the journalist reportedly suffered a beating by security guards and shots fired at his house after his statements against the prosecutor.
"Ironically, the case came as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo".
In Haiti, which is recovering from a devastating earthquake in January last year that killed an estimated 300,000 people an arson attack in April destroyed the offices and equipment of a community radio leaving the north-eastern city of Caricel without a radio station.
"The attack was attributed to armed supporters of a legislative candidate," said IPI, adding that earlier that month, the director-general of the state-owned Television National d'Haiti (TNH), Pradel Henriquez, filed a criminal defamation action against three TNH journalists "who said they were fired for bring critical of then-President elect Michel Martelly".
IPI noted that even though Cuba had released many of the 29 journalists detained during the 2003 crackdown, sending them into exile, journalists were still finding it very difficult to operate in the Caribbean's only Communist country.
The country, according to IPI has accused journalists of being US-CIA operatives.
But IPI said it has not all been gloom and doom for the region.
"The Caribbean did see some positive developments on media freedom" it said, making reference to the creation in Bermuda of a new self-regulatory, independent media council.
"The council, which began work in February, was created after a bill proposing statutory regulation was withdrawn from parliament following an outcry both from the local media community and international press freedom organisations, including IPI."
IPI said that in Jamaica, a proposal to amend the country's antiquated defamation laws and abolish the offence of criminal libel moved "forward".
Information Minister Daryl Vaz said he expects the proposal to go to Cabinet soon and that drafting instructions would be given to the chief parliamentary counsel once recommendations are approved.
But as it surveyed the situation in the rest of the Americas, IPI said that the number of deaths in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia "made the region the second most dangerous place for journalists outside of the Middle East and North Africa, which have experienced a spike in killings owing to recent upheaval".
It said that Mexico continues to be "one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with four murdered so far this year in attacks attributed to nacro-trafficking.
"Only Iraq, with seven deaths, and Libya, with five, have seen more killings," said IPI, adding that North American journalists faced a significant lower threat of violence, but that some incidents did emerge, such as the death threat against a California journalist covering a trial in the 2007 murder of Oakland Post reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey.
"Canada has also been the subject of calls for a comprehensive public inquiry into the arrests of and alleged assaults against journalists by police at the G20 Summit in Toronto last June," IPI said.