PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago – Archaic laws criminalizing defamation of character and carrying jail time and hefty fines remain widespread in the Americas, particularly in the Caribbean where they pose a threat to journalists, press freedom advocates said.
Despite a movement by many countries and press freedom advocates to do away with criminal defamation, or desacato, laws, they remain on the books in dozens of countries. In several recent cases, governments have used the laws to penalize and silence critical journalists.
Fear of jail time and financial penalties have a cooling effect, leading to self-censorship and a general fear of publishing reports critical of politicians, journalists said.
“We should not be jailed for what we do,” said Wesley Gibbings, a Trinidadian journalist and president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers. “In fact, people should generally not be jailed for expressing themselves. Whether it’s opinion … or whether it’s an analysis of our reality, people should not be sent to jail.”
Gibbings spoke on June 25 at the 61st annual gathering of journalists and press freedom advocates organized by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), the world’s leading press freedom group.
The meeting comes amid a push by the IPI and Caribbean media companies to pressure governments to repeal the laws.
An IPI delegation visited four Caribbean countries to meet with politicians and journalists this month. Its general assembly is likely to conclude the Trinidad conference with a declaration calling on governments to abolish insult and criminal defamation laws.
“We are focused with this particular campaign on the Caribbean because we think it can happen,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “There are laws that have already been introduced, so we are adding our voice to this fight and this push” to repeal criminal defamation laws.
Jamaican media companies have led that fight. Last year, media representatives in the Caribbean country had legislation introduced in Parliament to change defamation and libel laws.
The bill didn’t receive a vote, but Shena Stubbs, senior legal advisor for the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner, said they are pushing for its reintroduction.
“The removal of criminal libel heralds a symbolic removal of a major shackle of freedom of expression,” she said. “I am cautiously optimistic before the year is out … criminal libel will be no more in Jamaica.”
Such laws – holdovers from the Colonial Era – are prevalent throughout the world, even in bastions of free press like the United States, where 15 states have them on the books, although mostly as misdemeanor violations.
Several Latin American countries have made strides in repealing or weakening the laws. From Mexico to Argentina, seven countries in the region are moving to address the laws.
Yet, in those countries where the laws remain, including several in Latin America and nearly all in the Caribbean, they can be powerful weapons to silence opponents.
The 2011 Report of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Washington D.C.-based Organization of American States (OAS) cited several examples of the use of criminal defamation in the past year.
In April, a court sentenced an Ecuadoran journalist to a year in prison and fined him US$500 for critical comments made against a mayor in the city of Esmeraldas. The journalist, Wálter Vite Benitez, was transferred to a hospital after going on a hunger strike and later released when a court set aside the verdict.
The case was part of a trend in Ecuador in which one of the leading newspapers was nearly forced to shut down after President Rafael Correa brought cases against its executives and a columnist.
The special rapporteur’s report said the increased use of the laws “could lead to the imposition of disproportionate penalties against persons who publicly express criticism of the highest-ranking public dignitaries in Ecuador.”
In the Caribbean, the laws have been used almost exclusively by politicians and those with the means to bring often expensive and lengthy litigation against the opposition.
In January in the Dominican Republic, Johnny Alberto Salazar, head of the community radio station Vida FM and online newspaper vidadominicana.com ,was sentenced to six months in prison and fined more than US$25,600. He had suggested a prominent lawyer, who also chaired the human rights commission in the northern province of María Trinidad Sánchez, had ties to criminal organizations.
An appeals court overturned the decision last month.
“Whatever the truth of the offending statements, we believe this is a dangerous sentence that is disproportionate in itself and at odds with the American Convention on Human Rights in whose name no one should be jailed for what they say or write,” Reporters Without Borders said on its website regarding the verdict.
It was an example of how Caribbean countries continue to employ the laws despite the fact that governments in other parts of the world are using them less.
In Grenada, a leading newspaper was forced to close after former Prime Minister Keith Mitchell won libel cases against executives. The financial penalty proved too much for the paper to continue operating.
The judgment showed the damaging nature of excessive fines, Gibbings said.
“We need an application of the principle of defamation that is proportionate in the civil courts,” he said.