Jamaican ministers tell IPI that criminal defamation can be repealed this year
During a press freedom mission conducted at the beginning of this week, the IPI delegation, headed by its executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, met with representatives of the government, the British High Commission, the media and civil society. The Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) and the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) partnered in IPI´s efforts.
Sandrea Falconer, minister of Information; Peter Bunting, minister of National Security; AJ Nicholson, minister of Foreign Affairs; and Mark Golding, minister of Justice, received IPI´s delegates and expressed their support for the media. "We are proud of how we get along with the press. By large, we are proud of our press freedom and have no intentions of allowing it to fall. In fact, it can be improved," Nicholson said.
The minister of Foreign Affairs and former minister of Justice agreed with IPI that journalists shouldn't go to prison for defamation: "There are other ways of dealing (with this issue rather) than using criminal courts. The view is that the time has passed for empires; the time has passed for having the laws." When asked about the time needed for the legal reforms, he added: "That bill may very well be tabled this calendar year. I suspect and I expect it will happen".
Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding appointed in 2007 a committee chaired by Justice Hugh Small and with representation of diverse sectors of society to review the defamation laws. In January 2011 Parliament's Joint Special Committee began to discuss the implementation of the recommendations of the Special Select Committee and in April 2011 the Senate approved the Joint Select 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 the government changed last December and the bill needs to be reintroduced.
The MAJ and the PAJ have identified several areas of weakness in the bill and some omissions, so they are requiring amendments before the bill is reintroduced. They have expressed concerns regarding the limitation period for bringing of libel claims, the proof of special damage, capping of damages and avoiding multiplication of suits, among other aspects. They have indicated that they are willing to discuss those issues with the Justice Minister.
Minister Golding mentioned the discussions with the media houses regarding the Defamation Bill: "(The bill) is on my desk. I hope to table it this year and if we do, we would abolish criminal defamation." Minister Falconer, a former journalist herself and a believer in the need of decriminalising defamation, offered IPI the support of her office with any training effort or activity that benefits Jamaican journalists.
Jamaica is constantly highly ranked in press freedom, often ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States. IPI believes that the island has a strong press, but often restricted with antiquated laws. Although there appears to be a consensus toward improving press freedom by decriminalising defamation, the topic has to be given priority.
"We are anxious to see the government of Jamaica repeal criminal defamation. Such a move sends a strong message to the rest of the Caribbean that these laws are archaic and need to be abolished," Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
Pavol Mudry, vice-chair of IPI's Executive Board, added: "We had very promising meetings, not only with the media, but also with responsible politicians. I got the impression that they are really thinking about repealing criminal defamation. On the other hand, I am worried about what we heard about legislative procedures that can be incredibly long".
The use of the Access to Information Act is another concern for IPI in Jamaica, since media outlets have said that it takes very long to receive the required information. However, it appears that the government is now interested in providing information through weekly briefings and press conferences.
After visiting Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, IPI is now in Trinidad and Tobago preparing for its World Congress 2012, from June 23 to 26. The press freedom organization has also held meetings in Port of Spain with media outlets and government representatives, such as the Justice Minister and the Attorney General, as part of its campaign to decriminalize defamation in the Caribbean.