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Criminal defamation laws still on the books in Caribbean nations

(IPI/IFEX) - Feb 4, 2013 - Where in the Caribbean can journalists be sent to prison for doing their job? The answer: Everywhere.

A comprehensive legal review conducted by the International Press Institute (IPI) confirmed that every independent state considered geographically or culturally part of the Caribbean maintains some form of criminal defamation that could result in imprisonment.

Of those 16 countries, five — Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Haiti — have seen journalists criminally prosecuted for defamation within the last 15 years. In the Dominican Republic in 2012 alone, two journalists were sentenced to prison and a third threatened with criminal charges.

IPI conducted the independent review as part of its campaign to repeal all criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean, which kicked off last year with advocacy visits to Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

“IPI's review provides the most complete picture yet of criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “International consensus holds that such laws are incompatible with freedom of expression and that the venue for the resolution of defamation claims should be a civil courtroom. Unfortunately, the results of our research reveal a sizeable gap between the constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression found in virtually every Caribbean country and the legal reality on the ground.”

She continued: “While prosecutions for defamation have occurred in just a handful of Caribbean nations in recent times, so long as these laws remain on the books in any country, there exists the potential for their misuse to punish journalism critical of those in power.”

In a statement provided to IPI, Catalina Botero, the Organisation of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, reiterated the OAS's concern over criminal defamation laws, particularly when they punish offensive speech directed at public officials.

Specifically, she recalled the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which establishes that when relating to matters of public interest “[t]he protection of a person's reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions”, and that laws punishing insult or contempt of public officials “restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”

Botero concluded: “These principles are key to facilitating open and uninhibited debate about matters of public concern, which is an indispensable condition for the functioning of a democratic society.”

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