SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Jamaican officials are weighing a bill that would eradicate criminal defamation laws, potentially signaling the start of a shift on a key issue that threatens press freedom across the Caribbean.
The “Act to Repeal the Defamation Act and the Libel and Slander Act” would re-write libel and slander laws that press freedom advocates and media groups call archaic. Chief among the changes, the act would do away with criminal libel.
In Jamaica and many other Caribbean nations, defamation can be prosecuted as a criminal – not a civil – offense. Though prosecutors rarely use the laws, the fact they exist means journalists are constantly under threat.
The bill would “ensure that the law of defamation does not place unreasonable limits on freedom of expression and, in particular, on the publication and discussion of issues of public interest and importance,” a copy of the proposed legislation states.
In November, Jamaica’s House of Representatives tabled a vote on the act, although backers say they expect it to pass. The legislature will likely take up the measure when it reconvenes after the Dec. 29 general elections.
If the measure passes, it could resonate with other Caribbean countries, said Steven Ellis, press freedom adviser for Europe and North America at the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which advocates for greater press freedom.
“We’re working on a campaign to abolish criminal defamation laws across the Caribbean,” said Ellis, who was in Jamaica meeting with officials in early December. “Jamaica would be held as an example for other countries.”
Earlier this year, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers called on governments across the region to abolish the laws. The Caribbean Community and Common Market, a bloc of 15 Caribbean countries better known as CARICOM, has also voiced support for press freedom.
A committee appointed by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding in 2007 formulated the bill, but critics said the legislation isn’t as strong as it could be.
“Good progress was made [by the committee], however, the parliamentary committee stopped short of materially affecting the status quo when it refused to: a) put a cap on damages awarded; and b) set a different standard of proof for public officials,” said Christopher N. Barnes, an executive committee member of the Media Association of Jamaica Limited and managing director of the Jamaican daily The Gleaner.
The bill follows British case law on what constitutes defamation for public figures, including officials. Media groups had pushed for the Jamaican bill to follow tougher U.S. standards. Under U.S. law, it is more difficult for public figures to claim defamation, as they must prove media outlets showed malice in their coverage.
Catalina Botero, special rapporteur on freedom of expression with the Organization of American States (OAS), said the bill should go further, following the U.S. standards on defamation.
“The OAS standards are high standards, but they are realistic and they reflect a high level of democratic development,” she told Jamaican media outlets.
Additionally, the bill would allow a two-year statute of limitations on civil cases. Media groups had pushed for a year statute.
Ellis said the bill could have been strengthened by including a cap on financial damages in civil defamation cases.
However, Ellis said the IPI supports the bill because it sends a strong message on criminal defamation.
“The problem is that the law is on the books and all it takes is one case,” he said. Even if the laws are rarely employed, their mere existence is like a “sword being held over journalists’ heads.”