SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – When Dominican broadcast journalist José Agustín Silvestre de los Santos aired a report alleging a local prosecutor had ties to narcotics trafficking earlier this year, controversy erupted.
But it wasn’t the corruption Silvestre alleged that stirred outrage.
It was what happened to him: A judge sent Silvestre to jail while he awaited trial on charges of defamation and injury of character.
Silvestre was released a few days later on US$5,250 bond, but his trial continues.
“Criminal defamation is still a law on the books in the Caribbean.”
For international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, the message was clear.
“This detention order is tantamount to passing sentence before a verdict has been reached,” it said in a statement. “This effective jail sentence poses a serious threat to press freedom.”
The case highlights one of the persistent threats to journalists in the region.
Reporters throughout the Caribbean face legal threats related to regressive defamation laws still on the books in many countries. Those laws, coupled with the prevalence of violence toward members of the media who report on controversial subjects, pose a threat to journalists working throughout the region.
The Caribbean “is a dangerous place with respect to the censorship and legislative environment that exists here,” said Wesley Gibbings, a Trinidadian journalist and President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.
The threat of prosecution and violent retribution for investigatory journalism results in self-censorship, Gibblings said.
What’s more, several countries have failed to establish new freedom of information laws that would provide journalists with access to more information.
Meantime, large foreign news outlets have continually withdrawn from international coverage. The BBC’s World Service, for example, had a team of radio journalists covering the Caribbean. That service, which grew out of a small program that began in 1939, broadcasted its final show in March after the British government cut the BBC’s funding.
International press freedom groups said the region is relatively safe for journalists. The exceptions are the Dominican Republic, where journalists face the threat of violence, and Cuba, where they face government crackdowns.
The Dominican Journalism Guild registered 30 violent incidents against journalists in the past year. The Cuban government routinely is accused of harassing opposition voices.
The independent Havana-based Hablemos Press recently said 14 of its reporters had been harassed, and 10 had been detained briefly at some point during the past three months.
Reporters Without Borders placed Cuba at 166th (or 13th worst), and the Dominican Republic at 97th on its 2010 Press Freedom Index, which ranks 178 countries based on restrictions against members of the media. The other countries in the region ranked 145th or lower.
Still, the Vienna-based International Press Institute, the world’s oldest global press freedom organization, expressed “alarm” last month regarding the situation in the Caribbean.
“There are fairly serious concerns in the region,” said Nayana Jayarajan, the institute’s communications officer.
In countries with criminal defamation laws, journalists can be jailed if found guilty. In most countries, they also are liable to pay monetary damages in civil court.
“The difference is that it’s normally quite rare for it to be applied, but it’s been used against journalists in the Caribbean,” Jayarajan said when asked what makes practicing journalism in the Caribbean different from reporting in other regions of the world.
In recent years, reporters in Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda have been prosecuted under the law.
Newspaper Grenada Today challenged the constitutionality of Grenada’s criminal libel law after it was prosecuted for a 1999 article that claimed the country’s former prime minister had bribed supporters.
The newspaper appealed. In 2004, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for British Caribbean states, rejected the appeal and found the law was constitutional.
In 2009, the newspaper closed.
In May, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers called on governments across the region to erase the laws because they pose a threat to the freedom of the press and speech.
Jamaica’s government said it is considering abolishing criminal defamation, providing a bright spot.
Unfortunately, “Jamaica appears to be kind of a one-off incident,” Jayarajan said.