Friday, January 19, 2018

Rude wake-up call on media freedom

Express editorial logo332

Mark Fraser

It was perhaps inevitable that debate on the Libel and Defamation Act amendment should have been highlighted by exchanges over whose administration has been more hostile to media freedom.

MPs and senators other than Independent all found occasion to beat their chests and declaim against their own readings of the other side’s media freedom record. The amendment to the 1845 Act, passed in the Senate on Tuesday night, and since assented to by the President, however, had been brought to Parliament during the 45-month tenure of the People’s Partnership administration, which accordingly sought to gain credit. 

The measure was limited in its intent. For the historic mission of any progressive government today must be to remove from the law books all trace of anachronistic 19th century criminal-defamation offences. Indeed, criminal libel, a real and present liability for the practice of journalism and the business of media, actually dates from the 17th century.

Media historians have noted that, to the extent the application of criminal libel weakened, the practice of democracy strengthened. This historic trajectory was invoked in 2012, when the World Congress of the IPI was held in Port of Spain. Before that gathering, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had pledged to “review our defamation laws and bring them in line with international best practice”.

Last week’s debate, then, must have been initiated in fulfilment of the Prime Minister’s expressed intent to rectify a long-standing anomaly represented by the survival of Sections 8 and 9 of the Libel and Defamation Act dating from 1845.

As noted by Express columnist Dana Seetahal, SC, the “criminal law of libel has fallen into abeyance in this country, and it is unlikely that it will be resuscitated in the near future.” Such learned observation and projection should have reassuring effect for media practice.

But the debates succeeded in exposing less than adequately reassuring attitudes toward the media by the Government, the Opposition, and at least one Independent Senator. It’s thus deeply disappointing that, despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to international “best practice”, the amendment glaringly leaves in the act a section still clearly providing jail and fine for offending media.

The PNM opposition in both houses declined to support even removal of the offensive Section 9. It accordingly remains possible, under Section 8, for “any person (who) maliciously publishes any defamatory libel, knowing the same to be false”, to be jailed for two years and fined. 

T&T cannot convincingly claim to be in line with world “best practice” on media freedom. 

It is thus a kind of rude wake-up call to recognise that neither the government nor the opposition has committed to wholesale elimination of criminal sanctions against the media, to bring ancient law in line with long-evolved principle and best practice today.