Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar will today take a note to Cabinet to amend the laws to ensure that no journalist can be jailed under section nine of the Libel and Defamation Act for the malicious publication of any defamatory libel.
This move comes on the eve of World Press Freedom Day which will be celebrated tomorrow.
The Prime Minister said citizens can be comforted that section eight of the Libel and Defamation Act will remain part of the laws and hence in the event that someone publishes defamatory libel knowing same to be false, it will still be a criminal offence.
She added that safeguards still remain in place whereby citizens have the right to seek redress in the civil courts.
Persad-Bissessar said this was a major step made by her government in its commitment to a robust and free press in Trinidad and Tobago.
The Prime Minister made the announcement at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair yesterday at a joint news conference with International Press Institute (IPI) director Alison McKenzie, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) Kiran Maharaj and head of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) Wesley Gibbings.
After Cabinet’s expected approval of the note today, the Prime Minister said the amendment was a simple one and should be on the Parliament’s Order Paper in a “relatively short space of time,”.
She said that discussions with stakeholders have taken place over the past year since her Government hosted the 2012 IPI World Congress in June 2012 and gave an undertaking to discuss the continued existence of law on criminal libel in this country.
Persad-Bissessar said Attorney General Anand Ramlogan engaged in “free and frank” dialogue with the IPI and TTPBA resulting in the move to amend the Libel and Defamation Act.
“We will insert a new provision so that no journalist can be criminally charged and prosecuted under section 9 of the Libel and Defamation Act for the malicious publication of any defamatory libel,” said Persad-Bissessar.
“This would allow members of the media fraternity to engage in responsible journalism and to tell the story without fear of criminal liability. And, in so doing, my government will be removing an onerous legal restriction in the criminal law which imposes a one year sentence,” she added.
Laws on criminal libel, Persad-Bissessar said, have historically been used by many governments as a tool against journalists.
She pointed out that in the Caribbean region there were active criminal libel prosecutions in the last 15 years in countries such as Grenada where the then- prime minister Dr Keith Mitchell took a newspaper editor George Worme to court, which resulted in the closure of the Grenada Today newspaper in 2009.
“It is clear that this law can have an intimidating and crippling effect on the very important role that the press plays in modern society,” she said.
The Prime Minister noted that, in Trinidad and Tobago, the relevant laws which govern criminal libel can be found at Sections 8 and 9 of the Libel and Defamation Act, Chap 11:16 which states:
“Section 8- If any person maliciously publishes any defamatory libel, knowing the same to be false, he is liable on conviction to imprisonment for two years and to pay such fine as the Court directs.Section 9- If any person maliciously publishes any defamatory libel, upon conviction thereof he is liable to pay a fine and to imprisonment for one year.”.
She noted that criminal libel law—which was inherited from England—was first passed in 1846 and has governed the conduct of the media in this regard for over 160 years.
England, she said, repealed this law in 2009 while it remained on this country’s statute books.
“This law has been on our books for too long. We believe that in any civilised society, committed to freedom of the press it does not so belong. And so like England, we too would seek to remove it from our books,” said Persad-Bissessar.
“To this end, I am extremely pleased to say that subject to Cabinet’s approval, this law will no longer apply to our colleagues and friends in the media of Trinidad and Tobago. This historical removal is further evidence of the government’s commitment to an independent, free and fair press in our great nation,” she added.
The Prime Minister further called for responsible journalism.
“We remain hopeful that with the amendment to the legislation there would be the desire by journalists to do their part: a greater sense of professionalism and responsibility by journalists to first verify the facts before publishing a story,” she said.
“Robust discussion and even disagreement, criticism and consensus are the blood that flows through the veins of the free media. It must never be mistaken as an attack on press freedom but rather reflection and manifestation of that very free press,” she said.