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Trinidad and Tobago partially decriminalises defamation

A bill to partially decriminalise defamation in Trinidad and Tobago has received final parliamentary approval, the latest sign of growing momentum around the International Press Institute's (IPI) Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean.

The Trinidad and Tobago Senate approved the bill on Tuesday (18 February 2014), less than a month after passage in the House of Representatives. President Anthony Carmona is expected to sign it into law.

Trinidad's Libel and Defamation Act will be amended to abolish the offence of malicious defamatory libel (Section 9), while preserving the offence of malicious defamatory libel known to be false (Section 8).

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said IPI fully welcomed the development, but she emphasised that there was still work to be done.

"IPI congratulates the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament, as well as Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, for following through on a longstanding commitment to bring the country's libel laws more closely in line with international standards," she said. "This is a significant achievement and will strengthen the right of Trinidadian media and citizens alike to express their views and contribute to democratic debate without fear of punishment."

"However, we strongly encourage the Trinidadian government to fully repeal criminal libel, as its neighbours Grenada and Jamaica have already done, by removing Section 8. Civil courts are fully capable of redressing all kinds of defamation complaints. Until such further reform, the Libel and Defamation Act will still threaten the full exercise of press freedom."

Persad-Bissessar had promised to review her country's defamation laws during a speech at IPI's World Congress in Port of Spain in June 2012. The Congress also witnessed the signing by numerous Caribbean media associations of the Declaration of Port of Spain calling on regional governments to abolish criminal defamation.

In a statement released on 22 February, the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), which together with IPI and Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), had lobbied for the change, called the bill's passage "a step in a positive direction" that "opened the door for continuing dialogue with the Government on the Criminal Defamation Act and other legislation which may impinge upon the media and freedom of expression in our democratic nation."

IPI and ACM are leading a campaign to repeal criminal defamation across the Caribbean. Grenada (2012) and Jamaica (2013) have already done so, although seditious libel remains on the books in the former. Continued progress is on the horizon: Last month, Antigua and Barbuda's governor-general announced that a repeal bill would be introduced in the country's parliament in the current legislative year. In addition, a penal-code reform bill that would remove prison sentences for defamation is currently pending in the Dominican Republic.

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