AT an international summit in Trinidad last week, press freedom advocates said they intend to target the Caribbean in their quest to exterminate criminal defamation laws. In the Bahamas, where this repressive vestige of Colonialism still exists but is practically never applied, the announcement opens the door on a rare opportunity to reap global accolades with minimum effort. Insight reports...
By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune News Editor
WHEN Britain committed to the abolition of criminal defamation in 2009, it joined a global trend which so far includes Bosnia, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Ghana, Sri Lanka, the United States, New Zealand and Mexico.
But such laws persist in around 20 other countries, many of them in the Caribbean, and at the International Press Institute (IPI) 2012 World Congress in Trinidad last week it was announced that the region has been chosen as the focus of its campaign to stamp out criminal defamation globally.
Defamation laws (libel and slander) exist to protect the reputation of individuals from damage by false and malicious speech or publication. The need for such laws is recognised around the world, and in most democracies an attempt is made to balance this priority with the preservation of freedom of expression.
But in countries where the consequences of libel extend beyond civil penalties to criminal charges and time in prison, it is often used to more nefarious ends.
As the free expression activist group Article 19 points out, "In some countries, defamation laws go beyond the legitimate purpose of protecting individual reputations, broadly prohibiting criticism of heads of state, foreign governments, the flag, and/or state symbols. Officials and other public figures are naturally tempted to abuse defamation laws to silence their critics, and in some countries they have effectively muzzled debate and critical voices by invoking harsh defamation laws."
Even in countries like the Bahamas, where they are rarely if ever applied, the continued existence of such laws has come to represent distrust of free speech and open debate.
They also symbolise the persistence of a culture of official secrecy and privilege, the legacy of a colonial past many Bahamians - and presumably most members of the Progressive Liberal Party - would wish to see us distanced from.
Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, suggests the link between defamation laws around the world is that "they existed in the past to consolidate a repressive, elitist status quo.
"Recent Caribbean cases all emerge from the responses of political administrations. This should indicate to us that the basic intent remains the same."
But arguments about fairness, justice and history aside, there is another, very compelling reason why we should take an interest in the IPI's new Caribbean focus - leading the way could do wonders for our reputation.
The Bahamas is a country that depends quite literally on its international image to survive. As we continue to reel from wildly negative reports about our crime problem published by the international press, and an ominous travel warning issued to US citizens, there has never been a better time to change the conversation to something positive.
And, while a perceived lack of security is the primary threat to our tourism industry, we also lose the custom of many travellers who see the Bahamas as backward when it comes to human rights, gender equality, press freedom and other progressive issues.
A persistent theme of the new government's campaign was that we are losing ground to our tourism competitors in the region. Is this not an opportunity to beat them out in an arena that is sure to get sustained international attention, and in such a way that we come off looking not just like a beautiful location, but also an enlightened society?
Nor should it be lost on us that the United States, home to the overwhelming majority of our visitors, usually leads the way on such issues.
But if we want to take advantage of this opportunity, we'd better move swiftly.
IPI executive director Alison McKenzie said the organisation decided to focus on the Caribbean precisely because they feel the winds of change are already rising.
In a press freedom mission to Jamaica ahead of last week's congress, IPI officials were told the government there agrees journalists shouldn't go to prison for defamation.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and former minister of justice AJ Nicholson said 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. . . That bill may very well be tabled this calendar year. I suspect and I expect it will happen," he said.
And, at the end of the IPI congress, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced that her government would initiate a review of that country's defamation laws, in an effort to "bring them in line with international best practice."
But while these countries would seem to have a head start, the Bahamas can catch up quite quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
As it turns out, we do not have a separate Defamation Act, nor is there a specific Criminal Defamation Act.
Only in a small section of the Penal Code is it mentioned that negligent libel can bring a jail sentence of six months, and intentional libel, two years.
As our Penal Code is constantly being updated - never more so than in the last few years - it shouldn't be a stretch to get these two lines removed. One session of Parliament would do the trick.
In April, IPI director Anthony Mills made an extensive statement on the Bahamas ahead of the election, in which he said, in part:
"The Bahamas is frequently - and deservedly - cited as one of the most democratic, well-governed states in the Caribbean.
"However, in terms of press freedom there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"Criminal-defamation laws, whether during election season or not, contribute to hesitation and self-censorship on the part of the media - hindering the free flow of information and, ultimately, democracy.
"Whichever party wins next month's election should make the Bahamas a forerunner in the Caribbean by decriminalising defamation."
The Progressive Liberal Party has won. It's now their move.
What do you think?
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