THE International Press Institute (IPI) has told local journalists to maintain high ethical standards as a tool to increase their standing in public opinion.
The advice forms part of the "Final Report on the IPI Advocacy Mission to End Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean", which was released yesterday following two weeks of meeting with representatives of government, law enforcement, media and civil society in Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago as part of its campaign to decriminalise defamation across the Caribbean.
The IPI officials were in Trinidad during the period June 21-23 and found that while this country "boasts one of the largest and most vibrant media environments in the Caribbean...a number of media outlets have been forced to settle (civil) defamation lawsuits in court".
And as part of their recommendation the report called on local media to:
"Bring the issue of defamation into the public sphere by explaining the negative consequences of criminal defamation laws, maintain high ethical standards as a tool to increase standing in public opinion, and work to strengthen the influence of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association."
In a statement issued by IPI, executive director Alison Bethel-McKenzie, who led the mission, said they were pleased with the outcome of the visit to the Caribbean and confident that the campaign was off to a good start.
"In three of the countries that we visited, top elected officials expressed agreement with our position that criminal libel laws are colonial-era relics designed to suppress dissent and criticism and have no place in the modern democracies of the Caribbean.
"I believe we still have some way to go in convincing Barbados to lead the way in repealing criminal defamation, but was encouraged that the Prime Minister has agreed to revisit the issue," she said.
Bethel-McKenzie further called on governments to summon the political will necessary to complete the decriminalisation process, saying that the first step was to recognise the threat criminal libel laws posed to a free society.
As such, the report recommended that the Trinidad and Tobago Government:
"Prioritise the abolition of criminal defamation, ensure that acts of intimidation against the news media—including police raids, boycotts, and legal threats—are ended, improve responses to public information under the Freedom of Information Act and ensure the consultation of the media in laws that affect it".
According to IPI, "nearly all independent states in the Caribbean have criminal defamation laws on their books that establish a penalty of at least one year in prison".
As such, IPI's campaign and the mission, in particular, was prompted by concern that criminal defamation laws could be used by prominent figures to chill critical opinion and squelch investigations into alleged wrongdoing in order to protect their economic and political interests.
"The continued presence of criminal defamation as a feature of our legal environment is a slur on claims that our countries thrive in an environment of openness, transparency and freedom. There are warning signs that much more work needs to be done to secure the guarantee of even those freedoms listed in our bills of rights," added Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.