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Regional countries urged to abolish criminal libel

Saturday, May 03, 2014    

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EXECUTIVE director of the International Press Institute (IPI) Alison Bethel McKenzie yesterday called on all regional countries to repeal the decades-old criminal libel legislation, saying freedom of expression is essential to enable public participation in decision-making.

Addressing a breakfast forum as part of the World Press Freedom Day Forum organised by the Press Association of Jamaica and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ), Bethel McKenzie said citizens cannot effectively exercise their right to vote or take part in public debate if they do not have free access to information and ideas and are not able to freely express their views.

She said 14 of the 16 independent states considered geographically or culturally part of the Caribbean maintain some form of criminal defamation laws, including seditious and obscene libel laws.

"These laws instil self-censorship in the media and thereby deprive the public of information on matters of public interest," she said.

The Vienna-based IPI, she said, is hopeful that regional countries will follow the examples of Jamaica and Grenada and remove the legislation.

"We are hopeful that Governments in Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda and the Dominican Republic will honour public commitments and follow suit," she added.

The IPI has mounted missions to several Caribbean countries, along with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), in seeking to get regional governments to abolish "the antiquated laws that many of our nations have not used in decades".

The IPI executive director defended the position by saying "if one journalist in the region goes to jail, it jeopardises everything we do. And they have gone to jail, like in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

"So while journalists are not being systemically killed, physically assaulted and imprisoned in the Caribbean with the same chilling regularity as in certain other regions of the world, criminal defamation and seditious libel legislation are an example of the serious challenges that remain with respect to journalists' right to exercise their profession freely," she added.

At the same time, she urged journalists to pursue their profession ethically. "With media freedom comes responsibility, not statutory responsibility as defined by governments seeking to limit independent reporting, but voluntary standards and ethical practices.

In the meantime, the MAJ, in a statement yesterday, said Jamaica's new Defamation Act has not gone far enough in enabling the pursuit of a greater degree of accountability in public affairs and better equipping media to tackle corruption which is so pervasive in our country.

"Today, we renew our commitment to vigorously pursue the changes necessary to accomplish this goal. Today, we reiterate our concerns on the potential negative fall out for traditional media from recommended changes in government policy and, specifically, proposed changes to acts and regulations governing broadcast media. Unfortunately, these changes, if implemented now, and in current form, threaten the viability of the industry. We believe that the existing harsh economic climate offers little accommodation for the types of policy changes considered. However, notwithstanding this, we encourage modern, practical, effective legislation and regulation which advances the industry and provides for level playing field for all media: traditional and non-traditional. Indeed, we ourselves commit to modernising and expanding our services for the benefit of Jamaica," said the MAJ.

— CMC and Observer reports

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