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Caribbean nations must honour pledges to review criminal defamation

A report released by the International Press Institute (IPI) following its April 2013 mission to five Caribbean countries urges governments to follow through on commitments received during IPI's visit to repeal archaic criminal defamation laws.

During a nearly three-week long mission, IPI delegates met with representatives of government, law enforcement, media, and civil society in Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago as part of IPI's campaign to decriminalise defamation in the Caribbean.

“In four of the five countries that IPI visited, top government leaders expressed agreement that journalists should not face prison for doing their job and that criminal defamation laws do not belong in a modern democracy,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie stated. “While we would have liked a similarly concrete statement from the government of Guyana, we are encouraged that officials there have decided to review the issue.”

The mission found concrete success in Trinidad and Tobago, where the prime minister, at a press conference with Bethel McKenzie, announced a bill partially decriminalising defamation would be sent to Parliament; in the Dominican Republic, whose attorney general informed IPI of the official decision to replace the country's authoritarian-era press law with a modern statute that would include the elimination of all prison sentences for defamation; and in Antigua and Barbuda, where Prime Minister Winston Baldwin Spencer committed to repealing criminal defamation before the end of his current term.

IPI's campaign and the mission in particular were prompted by concern that criminal-defamation laws could be used by prominent figures to chill critical opinion and squelch investigations into alleged wrongdoings in order to protect their economic and political interests. According to IPI research, all independent states in the Caribbean have criminal defamation laws on their books that establish a penalty of at least one year in prison. Six—including Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, and the Dominican Republic—have applied these laws against journalists in the past 15 years.

Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), said: “IPI's mission in the Caribbean was a seminal moment in the recent evolution of press freedom awareness in our region. In this reputable organisation, the ACM has found genuine partners in the cause of protection of rights and also in establishing the link between good media performance and development in all its manifestations."

“I was encouraged that many of the people with whom we met agree that criminal defamation should be abolished,” added IPI Vice-Chair John Yearwood, who attended the mission. “We'll be watching closely to make sure the leaders act on their pledges.”

The report also examines in detail other serious press freedom concerns in each country, including allegations of government discrimination in the awarding of broadcast licenses in Guyana. A group of IPI members and broadcasting executives last week urged Guyanese President Donald Ramotar to ensure that license applications are handled in a fair and independent manner by the country's new Broadcast Authority.

Other issues covered by the report include the absence or inadequate implementation of freedom of information legislation; the use of state media to transmit political propaganda; unequal distribution of government advertising; and impunity for crimes committed against the media. During the mission, IPI also sought to address concerns, held by both government and private citizens, about media responsibility, and encouraged media associations to take a more active role in promoting and enforcing ethical standards.

The findings for each country are accompanied by substantive recommendations for both governments and media practitioners.

“IPI is committed to working with Caribbean governments and our local media partners not only to repeal criminal libel, but also to foster an independent, investigative, self-regulated media free from government interference," said Bethel McKenzie. “We are looking forward to developing a Caribbean-wide training program for journalists, as well as assisting with the creation and implementation of self-regulatory mechanisms, such as media councils and codes of ethics.”

IPI's delegation to the Caribbean consisted of Bethel McKenzie, IPI Executive Board Vice-Chair John Yearwood, and IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean Scott Griffen. The mission was carried out from April 14 – May 6 and in conjunction the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) and its national affiliates as well as the Association of Dominican Journalists (Colegio dominicano de periodistas, CDP).

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