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Jamaica decriminalises defamation

By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean

In a milestone achievement for press freedom in the Caribbean, the Jamaican Parliament has approved a bill fully abolishing the offence of criminal defamation.

Following a unanimous Senate vote in July, Jamaica's House of Representatives on Nov. 5 passed the Defamation Bill 2013, which revamps the country's libel legislation to better reflect international standards. The new law replaces both the 19th-century Libel and Slander Act and the 1963 Defamation Act.

In addition to the repeal of criminal libel, the reforms include the elimination of the distinction between slander and libel; the reduction of the limitation period for actions from six years to two; replacement of the defence of justification with the defence of truth; the introduction of the defence of innocent dissemination; and a stipulation that damages shall be at the sole discretion of judges, not juries.

"What tremendous news for press freedom in Jamaica, the Caribbean, and the world over!" International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, who has led three IPI missions to Jamaica, said today. "I want to congratulate the Jamaican Parliament for staying the course and removing criminal defamation from the country's law books."

She continued: "There was a clear consensus in Jamaica among government, media, and civil society that criminal defamation laws are an archaic holdover from colonial times and threaten the press's ability to report freely and in the interest of the people. As we continue with our campaign to repeal criminal defamation in the Caribbean, we urge regional countries to follow Jamaica's courageous example."

The product of a nearly seven-year debate involving representatives of the government, media, and civil society, the bill is expected to be granted royal assent by Governor-General Sir Patrick Linton Allen.

Jamaica has now become the first independent Caribbean country to have no criminal defamation laws — including seditious libel — on the books. Grenada abolished criminal libel in 2012, but maintains laws criminalising seditious libel and insult of the monarch.

As part of its campaign to repeal criminal defamation in the Caribbean, IPI lobbied publicly and privately for the bill's passage; IPI and its strategic partner, the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), also visited the island country three times to meet with government officials in support of the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) and the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ). (Read IPI's most recent Jamaica mission report here.)

ACM President Clive Bacchus noted: “This move by the government of Jamaica comes after many years of work by media organisations such as the PAJ and MAJ. Special mention, however, must be made of the work of the Justice Hugh Small Commission which drew its conclusions from civil society and whose report, thankfully, was not allowed to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. The ACM is also proud to have been a part of the effort to remove criminal defamation from the island's statute books."

In a statement, PAJ President Jenni Campbell said: "This is an important step in increasing freedom of expression and by extension press freedom in Jamaica."

"It is unfortunate that a legislation as important as this would linger for six years after the Hugh Small-chaired committee submitted its proposals to then Prime Minister Bruce Golding but as the saying goes, 'better late than never'," added Campbell.

The bill, tabled by Justice Minister Mark Golding last March, reflects a number of recommendations that emerged from a 2008 Parliamentary small committee chaired by the retired High Court judge Ronald Small. In Parliament, it ultimately passed with bipartisan support.

The PAJ and MAJ, supported by IPI, had pressed for further reforms that were ultimately not included, such as a cap on general damages, a reduction in the limitation period to one year, and a specification that proof of 'special damage' be required to recover damages in a suit.

While the new law represents enormous progress, IPI believes it will be critical for the Jamaican courts to interpret its terms so as to always favour the media's right to publish information in the public interest. Importantly, the courts should consider financial damages as just one option for the redress of defamation claims. Printed corrections or apologies, for example, should be avenues of the first resort for restoring reputation if damage is judged to have occurred.

In any case, IPI strongly urges the courts to refrain from issuing excessive damage awards, as these could severely hamper the media's ability to do its job of properly informing the public.

In 1996, the Gleaner, Jamaica's oldest newspaper, was ordered to pay former minister of tourism Eric Anthony Abrahams J$ 80.7 million (€602,000) after it ran an Associated Press story accusing Abrahams of accepting bribes from an American advertising company. The Jamaican Court of Appeal later deemed the amount excessive and reduced it to J$ 35 million (€242,000).

The legislatures of two additional countries visited by IPI as part of the campaign — Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic — are also currently considering bills that would partially decriminalise libel. The government of Antigua and Barbuda has announced that a bill to decriminalise defamation will be introduced to Parliament in the first quarter of 2014.

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