June 29, 2012
Leaders differ in response to calls to abolish criminal defamation laws

The call by the International Press Institute (IPI) for Caribbean governments to abolish criminal defamation legislation is being met with mixed responses from Caribbean leaders.{{more}}

While Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Tuesday promised to initiate a review of her nation’s defamation laws, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves on Tuesday said he thinks such laws are “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”.

The members of the IPI earlier this week called on Caribbean governments, as a matter of urgency, to abolish ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation legislation and common law criminal defamation rules, as well as review civil defamation laws and all other laws that restrict media freedom.

The call was stated in the Declaration of Port of Spain, which was made during the 61st Annual General Assembly of the IPI World Congress, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, from June 23 to 26.

The Declaration said that it has been noted that “media outlets across the wider Caribbean may be subjected to a panoply of repressive measures, from jailing and persecution to the widespread scourge of ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation, which are sometimes used by the powerful to prevent critical appraisal of their actions and to deprive the public of information about misdeeds.”

The Declaration also called on Caribbean media proprietors and professionals to promote and actively implement measures to ensure high editorial standards and to uphold ethical journalism.

Persad-Bissessar made the pledge to review her country’s laws at the assembly of members of the International Press Institute (IPI) at the Diplomatic Centre in Port of Spain, Trinidad during the closing ceremony of IPI’s 61st annual World Congress.

Gonsalves stated his view at a press conference in Kingstown on Tuesday, when asked to comment by SEARCHLIGHT. He asked if there are no criminal defamation laws, how would one deal with a “man of straw” who defames someone.

“If a man of straw simply decides to defame people all the time, what do you do?

He’s a man of straw, you sue him. You get a judgment, but the judgment is not worth the paper it is written on. He owns no property, he has no house, and you have them all about St Vincent you know. Some of them are employed… in some cases by a particular political party.

“You really think that’s a significant restraint on people exercising their freedom of speech? I don’t think so.

“I think it is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society that such a law be in place,” he said.

Gonsalves, however, made the point that in St Vincent and the Grenadines, prosecution for criminal libel must be initiated by the Director of Public Prosecution, and that in his adult years, there has not been a prosecution of criminal libel.

He, however, said that in this country, there is an offence called abusive language.

“It’s a summary offence. If you look at the section in the criminal code you will see obscene, abusive or insulting language. So you can bring somebody up for insulting language, which carries I think 3 months imprisonment maximum… but you can’t bring somebody up for criminal libel.

“I know the debates very well. I am sympathetic with the view that we should widen the freedoms as much as possible, but the freedoms have to come with a set of responsibilities and obligations.”

The IPI Declaration will be presented to: the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with the request that it be presented to the UN General Assembly; the Director-General of UNESCO, with the request that it be placed before the General Conference of UNESCO; the Secretary-General and the Chairperson of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), with the request that it be distributed to all full and associate CARICOM members, so that it can be endorsed by CARICOM at the group’s next summit meeting of heads of Government; to member nations of the Association of Caribbean States; the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), with the request that it be presented to the OAS General Assembly; and to the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.