VIENNA, Austria (CMC) — The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) Monday said that defamation laws remain widespread across the Caribbean that could even lead to imprisonment.
IPI said that it carried out a comprehensive legal review of the situation in the region and that "every independent state considered geographically or culturally part of the Caribbean maintains some form of criminal defamation that could result in imprisonment".
It said of the 16 countries, Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Haiti, have seen journalists criminally prosecuted for defamation within the last 15 years.
IPI said last year, in the Dominican Republic, two journalists were sentenced to prison and a third threatened with criminal charges.
The organisation conducted the independent review as part of its campaign to repeal all criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean, which kicked off last year with advocacy visits to Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
"IPI's review provides the most complete picture yet of criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean," IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
"International consensus holds that such laws are incompatible with freedom of expression and that the venue for the resolution of defamation claims should be a civil courtroom. Unfortunately, the results of our research reveal a sizeable gap between the constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression found in virtually every Caribbean country and the legal reality on the ground."
She said while prosecutions for defamation have occurred in just a handful of Caribbean nations in recent times, "so long as these laws remain on the books, in any country, there exists the potential for their misuse to punish journalism critical of those in power".
Catalina Botero, the Organisation of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, in a statement to IPI, reaffirmed the OAS's concern over criminal defamation laws, particularly when they punish offensive speech directed at public officials.
Specifically, she recalled the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which establishes that when relating to matters of public interest "[t]he protection of a person's reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions", and that laws punishing insult or contempt of public officials "restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.
"These principles are key to facilitating open and uninhibited debate about matters of public concern, which is an indispensable condition for the functioning of a democratic society."
IPI said defamation may be understood as a communication, usually an allegation or accusation, either written or spoken, containing a statement that harms the reputation or honour of the subject of the communication.
It said libel refers to defamation expressed through the written word, while slander indicates oral defamation.
According to IPI, except for Grenada, every state in the English-speaking Caribbean "has specific criminal libel laws on the books, with offenders facing a minimum of six months to one year in prison.
The Vienna-based media group said that Haiti's defamation laws contain a particularity not seen elsewhere in the Caribbean.
"Namely, those accused of defamatory statements that impute to an individual criminal acts that could result in the death penalty face up to three years in prison; in all other cases of defamation, the accused faces up to one year.
"In another notable provision, those convicted of "slanderous accusation" against law-enforcement or judicial authorities can lead up to one year in prison and the loss of certain civil rights. Haiti, while French-speaking, also maintains the distinction between defamation (diffamation) and insult (injure). "
IPI said its review also examined laws that punished "obscene libel" or "offending public morality", which were found in nine of the 16 countries surveyed.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, such provisions were usually phrased as banning the publication of obscene content. In the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, offenders risk up to two years in prison. St Lucia elevates the punishment to five years.