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Caribbean governments urged to repeal archaic criminal defamation laws

Tuesday, July 30, 2013    

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VIENNA, Austria (CMC) — The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) yesterday appealed to Caribbean governments to follow through on commitments to repel archaic criminal defamation laws in their respective countries.

Representatives from the IPI and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), the region's umbrella media organisation, visited five Caribbean countries in April.

The three-week visit to Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago allowed for discussions with representatives of government, law enforcement, media, and civil society as part of the campaign to decriminalise defamation in the Caribbean.

"In four of the five countries that IPI visited, top government leaders expressed agreement that journalists should not face prison for doing their job and that criminal defamation laws do not belong in a modern democracy," said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie.

"While we would have liked a similarly concrete statement from the government of Guyana, we are encouraged that officials there have decided to review the issue."

The call comes just over a week after Jamaica's Senate passed the Defamation Act of 2013, which gives the press more freedom to carry out its function. The Bill has since been tabled in the House of Representatives.

Yesterday, the IPI statement said that in Trinidad and Tobago, Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar at a news conference announced that a bill partially decriminalising defamation would be sent to Parliament, while in the Dominican Republic, government announced plans to replace the country's authoritarian-era press law with a modern statute that would include the elimination of all prison sentences for defamation.

The IPI statement said that Antigua and Barbuda's Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer committed to repealing criminal defamation before the end of his current term.

IPI said its 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.

According to IPI research, all independent states in the Caribbean have criminal defamation laws on their books that establish a penalty of at least one year in prison.

Six countries -- including Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, and the Dominican Republic -- have applied these laws against journalists in the past 15 years.

ACM president Wesley Gibbings, who was part of the mission, described the visit to the regional countries as "a seminal moment in the recent evolution of press freedom awareness in our region.

"In this reputable organisation, the ACM has found genuine partners in the cause of protection of rights and also in establishing the link between good media performance and development in all its manifestations."

IPI Vice-Chair John Yearwood, who was also part of the mission, said he was "encouraged that many of the people with whom we met agree that criminal defamation should be abolished.

"We'll be watching closely to make sure the leaders act on their pledges," he added.

The report also examines in detail other serious press freedom concerns in each country, including allegations of government discrimination in the awarding of broadcast licences in Guyana.

A group of IPI members and broadcasting executives last week urged Guyanese President Donald Ramotar to ensure that licence applications are handled in a fair and independent manner by the country's new Broadcast Authority.

Other issues covered by the report include the absence or inadequate implementation of freedom of information legislation; the use of state media to transmit political propaganda; unequal distribution of government advertising; and impunity for crimes committed against the media.

During the mission, IPI also sought to address concerns about media responsibility, held by both government and private citizens, and encouraged media associations to take a more active role in promoting and enforcing ethical standards.

The findings for each country are accompanied by substantive recommendations for both governments and media practitioners.

"IPI is committed to working with Caribbean governments and our local media partners not only to repeal criminal libel, but also to foster an independent, investigative, self-regulated media free from government interference," said Bethel McKenzie.

"We are looking forward to developing a Caribbean-wide training programme for journalists, as well as assisting with the creation and implementation of self-regulatory mechanisms, such as media councils and codes of ethics."

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