Pussyfooting with criminal libel
We can agree with the opinion of the PNM Member of Parliament for St Joseph, Terrence Deyalsingh, that a more holistic review of the Libel and Defamation Act is required given technological and other changes that have dramatically altered the information environment. But we completely disagree with the PNM’s position that criminal libel be retained on this country’s law books.
Indeed, we must confess to being mystified by the Opposition’s entire position on this issue. While the PNM has taken one step forward by agreeing with the abolition of imprisonment for criminal libel, it continues to insist that criminal libel remain on the books on penalty of stiffer fines. MP for Diego Martin North East, Colm Imbert, has argued that criminal libel has served as a deterrent against errant publishers. To support this position, the PNM has pointed to the lack of charges that have been brought under the criminal libel law. We beg to disagree with this interpretation.
This lack of usage provides the evidence that the charge of criminal libel is obsolete and irrelevant to the needs of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. By every conceivable measure, members of the public, including politicians, who feel aggrieved by published matter, have invariably opted to seek redress and relief by filing suit through the civil court. Indeed, the proliferation of legal action against media houses would suggest that the T&T public is very robust in defence of its right not to be libelled or defamed by the media.
Mr Deyalsingh’s support for retaining criminal libel with stiff fines against media houses on the ground that their business is covered by libel insurance is naïve in the extreme. It suggests that media houses are getting away with libelling people without having to pay. On the contrary, offending media houses are regularly ordered to pay out stiff damages to injured members of the public with significant impact to their libel insurance. What this would suggest is that the T&T public prefers a route of redress that gives them direct and personal relief, commensurate with the injury they have suffered.
We must also confess our surprise that the Government has chosen to retain the charge of criminal libel under Section 8 of the Libel and Defamation Act. While the repeal of Section 9 eliminates criminal prosecution for defamatory libel, Section 8 allows for a charge of criminal libel to be brought against persons who have allegedly published defamatory libel “knowing the same to be false”. The penalty for conviction under Section 8 remains imprisonment for two years and a fine as directed by the Court.
Our position on criminal libel remains firm. It should be completely eliminated through the repeal of Sections 8 and 9. We do not understand the Government’s logic in going half-way on the issue, nor do we agree with the PNM’s proposal for its retention without jail. Intentional defamation is already properly addressed through a judge’s discretionary right to determine the quantum of damages as deemed appropriate given the extent of the injury, including deliberate wrongdoing.