Rights group warns against reintroduction of sedition legislation
RIGHTS Group Jamaicans for Justice, in taking note of a recent indication by the Jamaican Government that it is contemplating hate speech legislation, says while “high levels of discrimination against vulnerable groups is a real concern, standalone hate speech legislation cannot be the initial step in this conversation”.
In a statement issued to the media late Tuesday evening, the rights group said, “while the organisation agrees that minority groups, such as those within the disabled community or others who are discriminated against based on gender or sexual orientation, require increased legislative protections, the organisation urges caution that the Government does not unintentionally or intentionally reintroduce criminal libel or sedition legislation in the country”.
Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who was the featured guest on the monthly discussion forum at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, DC, said, to address the chronic levels of violence in Jamaica the country will, among other things, have to treat with the issue of “hate speech”, though it “is not a feature in the Jamaican society”.
“Many of you in the diaspora live in societies where speech that deliberately targets violence at a group or a person is treated within law; in Jamaica there is really no such thing. We have to consider thatâ€¦These are things that we are studying, but, as a democracy, they will have to go through a process of social discourse so that we can treat with it,” Holness said then as he urged Jamaicans in the diaspora to share their expertise and advice with family and friends at home on the importance of controlling violence.
On Tuesday, the JFJ, in taking further note of subsequent comments by the minister responsible for information Robert Morgan, who in a media interview, while assessing the contemplation of the legislation, said “there are many actors in the society who seek to incite violence against other members of the society using certain language, gang members, persons who have an interest in undermining the State”, and that statement diverged from the intended scope of hate speech law.
According to the JFJ, this stance was “aligning more closely with the scope of sedition law, where individuals may face criminal sanctions if they raise criticism against the State”.
“Such a statement raises concerns that Jamaica may be taking a regressive rather than progressive step,” it stated, while pointing out that Jamaica in 2013 repealed its sedition legislation, contributing to its noteworthy press freedom ranking, currently standing at 12th in the world out of 180 countries.
“JFJ contends that existing defamation provisions adequately safeguard against reputational damage and there is no need for alternative provisions to do the same. The organisation also hastens to point out that threatening language is already a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act. Hate speech, on the other hand, entails abusive or threatening speech or writing expressing prejudice based on ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or similar grounds. JFJ emphasises that hate speech legislation, unlike sedition laws, is designed to address discrimination without impinging on the critique of the Government,” the rights group said.
In the meantime, the group, in noting that “based on the general understanding of hate speech” it is “not against greater legislative and constitutional provisions as there are documented high levels of stigma and discrimination against minority groups in the country”. However, it called for “expanded constitutional protection for vulnerable groups and the establishment institutional human rights framework to promote and protect the rights of such vulnerable groups”.
“For avoidance of doubt, JFJ asserts its full support for a dialogue on enhanced protections for vulnerable groups. We further call for greater constitutional protection where the constitution is broadened in scope expanding freedom from discrimination to include sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities and health status as protected categories. In other words, JFJ contends that foundational groundwork is essential to fulsomely address the issue of discrimination before hate speech laws can even be contemplated. This foundational work also includes the introduction of a broad anti-discrimination legislation,” the JFJ said.
Over the weekend two influential church umbrella groups here, in warning the Government against going in that direction, called on the prime minister to explain exactly what he meant by his comment on hate speech.