The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
I join with Reporters Without Borders (Global) and the Centre for Law and Democracy in Canada calling upon our Country to decriminalize libel and to delete it from the cybercrimes bill draft forthwith!
In a joint declaration by: the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, made after having met with representatives of NGOs, UNESCO, journalists’ associations and human rights experts in London on Dec. 9-10, 2002, under the auspices of ARTICLE 19, Global Campaign for Free Expression, the following was noted: “Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.” Also, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Human Rights Committee 102nd session held in Geneva, 11-29 July 2011, in their General Comment No. 34 on Article 19 Freedoms of Opinion and Expression the following was stated, “States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.” Please note that St. Vincent and the Grenadines has been a state party to this convention since 1981.
During the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 2012 campaign for the decriminalisation of libel in the Caribbean region, the following was the result: Grenada decriminalized libel in 2012, then Jamaica in 2013 and Antigua and Barbuda in 2015 and it was partially abolished in Trinidad and Tobago in 2014 (although some countries have been challenged with proposed Electronic/Cyber Crimes legislation seeking to revive it). Most significantly, in 2009 the United Kingdom decriminalised this archaic and draconian rule which countries like ours inherited from it in colonial days. Why keep such a backward provision, let alone incorporate it into cybercrimes legislation in 2016? In 2013, I too expressed my opposition to criminal libel while in interview with the IPI on the Grenada situation with their Electronic Crimes Act 2013.
In a training manual for journalists on Freedom of Expression, the IPI said, “The danger with criminal defamation — and one of the many reasons why defamation should be a purely civil matter — is that the involvement of the state in prosecuting alleged defamers shifts the matter very quickly into the punishment of dissent. At the least it gives additional and excessive protection to officials and government.” And of the impact of criminal libel on journalism we hear that, “Every case of imprisonment of a media professional is an unacceptable hindrance to freedom of expression and entails that, despite the fact that their work is in the public interest, journalists have a sword of Damocles hanging over them. The whole of society suffers the consequences when journalists are gagged by pressure of this kind … The Assembly consequently takes the view that prison sentences for defamation should be abolished without further delay. In particular, it exhorts states whose laws still provide for prison sentences — although prison sentences are not actually imposed — to abolish them without delay so as not to give any excuse, however unjustified, to those countries which continue to impose them, thus provoking a corrosion of fundamental freedoms.” Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1577 (2007), “Towards decriminalization of defamation.
Despite these facts, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves argues that criminal libel laws are necessary in our society because it “aids, peace, safety and non-violent responses by victims of defamation”, who may not be able to recover damages from men and women of straw who deliberately and repeatedly defame them. I would hate to think that any Vincentian leader would give the impression that it is “understandable” or “acceptable” for persons to violently respond if they cannot secure an imprisonment sentence against their defamer. Furthermore, people have engaged in violent responses without being first defamed; in disagreements, out of extreme covetousness and greed (robbery, theft, etc.) Violence is never justified, defamed or not, and this is not my message as a political leader to my people. I encourage tolerance, maturity, forgiveness and, at best, the use of the civil court for defamatory speech. Besides, since our criminal libel provision on our books has fallen into disuse, how can you know that it has aided “peace, safety and non-violent responses by victims of defamation?” How can you know this when nobody uses it?
People who are defamed prefer to use the civil court, answer the defamation publicly or ignore the published lies. If a man cannot pay fines in civil court, we may empower the court to order him to publish an apology (of certain length, on the same platform the libel was published etc.), in order to correct the damage done. It may even order other measures (civil community service). These are sufficient to address the tort of libel from such a person. If one argues that the defamed suffered tangible loss, remember sending the defamer to prison will not recover the loss either. If he repeats his libel deliberately, a repeated order to publish an apology and do community service, will soon enough earn him the reputation of the defamer that he is and cast his defamation and any of its effects into oblivion. No one would take his pronouncements seriously. When punishing wrong speech, consider what politician Charles Bradlaugh said, “Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech progress is checked and the nations no longer march forward toward the nobler life which the future holds for man. Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.”
Section 10 of our Constitution protects freedom of expression from unjustifiable limitations, such as imprisonment for defamation. It is a subject of eternal truth that, “…all men are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights…”-U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776). This requires that legislatures “…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment, Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution.
Anesia O. Baptiste
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].