Criminal Defamation

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie thanks Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the closing ceremony of IPI's 2012 World Congress in Port of Spain, after Persad-Bissessar committed to reviewing her country's criminal defamation law. Photo: IPI

IPI Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean

Overview

Despite their diversity, the independent states that comprise the Caribbean have one thing in common: criminal defamation laws.  From the Bahamas to Trinidad, journalists still risk being sent to prison – Initiates file downloadup to five years in some jurisdictions - for exercising their democratic duty of investigating and reporting on matters of public interest.

In 2012 IPI, alarmed at the threat to press freedom, launched a campaign to abolish criminal defamation laws in the Caribbean.  The articles, links, and other resources on this page are designed to serve as an introduction to the issue of criminal defamation and to the methods and goals of IPI’s campaign.  So keep reading to find out what we are doing – and how you can help.

Our Commitment

For over 60 years, IPI has staunchly opposed the use of criminal defamation laws.  These laws often carry harsh criminal sanctions and represent a powerful tool that is frequently used to discourage or punish critical reporting on state institutions and their representatives.  Learn more about IPI's opposition to criminal libel laws by reading our Initiates file downloadWhite Paper on Criminal Defamation.

Background

Since its origin in England’s notorious Star Chamber as a method of punishing disrespect for authority, criminal defamation law has taken a circuitous path to its status today as little more than a cudgel against legitimate dissent and criticism. Its redundancy, limited defense options, and erratic application have left criminal libel law as an archaic, but established and growing concern in the arena of free speech.

As currently constituted, criminal defamation is an outdated legal concept. The vast majority of offences prosecuted under criminal libel laws are frequently, if not always, subject to a number of other laws, most notably the remedy of its tort law cousin, civil libel.

The pressing need for change

In a joint declaration on “Current Challenges to Media Freedom” passed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression stated that:

“All Member States should review their defamation laws in order to ensure that they do not restrict the right to freedom of expression and to bring them into line with their international obligations.“

“At a minimum, defamation laws should comply with the following standards:

the repeal of criminal defamation laws in favour of civil laws should be considered, in accordance with relevant international standards; […] civil sanctions for defamation should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression and should be designed to restore the reputation harmed, not to compensate the plaintiff or to punish the defendant; in particular, pecuniary awards should be strictly proportionate to the actual harm caused and the law should prioritize the use of a range of non-pecuniary remedies.“

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart during IPI's mission to Barbados in June 2012. Photo: IPI.

IPI’s Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation

Since IPI began its campaign in June 2012, two countries - Opens internal link in current windowGrenada and Opens internal link in current windowJamaica - have abolished criminal libel. IPI visited Jamaica as part of its campaign in June 2012.

Currently, bills that would partially decriminalise defamation are pending in Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic, countries visited by IPI twice since the start of the campaign. The government of Antigua and Barbuda, which IPI visited in April 2013, has said a bill to repeal criminal libel will be introduced to Parliament in early 2014.

IPI has undertaken two missions in support of the campaign:

In June 2012, IPI carried out a Opens internal link in current windowPress Freedom Mission to four Caribbean countries: Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.  Read the final mission report Initiates file downloadhere.

In April 2013, IPI carried out a second Press Freedom Mission to Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago. Read the final mission report here.

Attendees at the 2012 IPI World Congress in Trinidad and Tobago discussed concerns related to the use of criminal defamation laws to stifle press freedom in the Caribbean. Opens internal link in current windowThe IPI Declaration of Port of Spain, endorsed by the IPI General Assembly and numerous groups in the Caribbean, calls for the abolition of ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation legislation in the Caribbean, and for the support of strong, free and independent media. 

IPI is grateful for the work of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies at the Opens external link in new windowIndiana University School of Journalism with respect to the campaign.