THE media-friendly Act to repeal the Defamation Act and the Libel and Slander Act was tabled in the Senate yesterday, after a near 15-month delay.
The Bill had cleared almost all hurdles on its way to implementation in 2011 under the previous Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government when the general election intervened. It has since been reviewed by the People's National Party (PNP) administration, which came to power in January 2012, and was approved by the Cabinet on Monday.
It meets most demands from global media body, the International Press Institute (IPI), and the regional body, the Caribbean Media Association (CMA), for relaxation of defamation and seditious libel laws, to give the press more freedom in carrying out its functions.
In announcing the Cabinet's approval at Wednesday's post-Cabinet press briefing, Minister of Information Senator Sandrea Falconer -- herself a journalist -- hailed the Bill as "a major step in the promotion of the freedom of expression".
"Cabinet is of the strong view that journalists should never have to face the threat of prosecution when carrying out their duties. A free, vigorous and ethical press is a critical ingredient of a modern and striving democracy," she said.
She explained that the new Bill would include provisions for:
* The abolition of the law relating to criminal libel, to protect journalists from being jailed for defamation;
* Reduction of the limitation period for actions on defamation from six to two years;
* Abolition of the distinction between libel and slander and the establishment of a single cause known known as defamation;
* The replacement of the defence of justification with the defence of truth;
* And provisions for the resolution of disputes without court proceedings.
But the minister warned that the removal of the libel and defamation provisions from the laws did not mean that journalists can impugn people's character and destroy reputations, at will.
"They have to be responsible for their actions," Senator Falconer said.
Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, in 2007, appointed a committee chaired by Justice Hugh Small, and including representatives from across the society, to review the ancient defamation laws.
In January 2011, a Special Select Committee began discussions on the implementation of the recommendations of a Joint Select Committee of Parliament, which reviewed the draft Bill and, in April 2011, the Senate approved the Committee's report.
In November 2011 a Bill titled 'An Act to Repeal the Defamation Act and the Libel and Slander Act' was tabled in the House of Representatives, but after the change of government in December 2011, it was withdrawn by the new government and reviewed.