Media groups seek to remove criminal libel from statute books

PORT-OF-SPAIN: The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) Tuesday called on regional governments to take action to erase the common law offences of criminal libel, including blasphemous, obscene and seditious libel from their statute books.

In a message marking World Press Freedom Day, the ACM said the politicians insist on retention of criminal defamation statutes despite the evidence that they pose a danger to free speech and freedom of the press.

“In this regard, we call on the government of Jamaica and all other Caribbean community countries to take action to erase the common law offences of criminal libel including blasphemous, obscene and seditious libel from their statute books.

“It is a position endorsed by a Joint Select Committee of the Jamaican parliament in 2008, following submission of the Justice Hugh Small Report that very year,” the ACM said.

Although the media landscape in the Caribbean is undergoing a measure of change, according to the ACM, “such change is not being matched by a corresponding revolution in official mind-set.

“Despite repeated promises, the government of Guyana persists in its refusal to award new radio broadcasting licenses and has used state advertising revenues as a tool of media punishment and reward.

“The state media in Trinidad and Tobago still wrestle with the spectre of political control and there is evidence that a coercive broadcast content quota system will return, courtesy of state regulators, to the front burner in due course.”

The ACM said that the majority of Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries have also not passed access to information laws.

“The presence of such laws is a prerequisite to declaration of the bona fides of a Caribbean country as one committed to transparency and accountability. In instances where such laws exist, it is also important to ensure they are truly providing unfettered access to official information in the way originally intended,” the ACM said.

“We would further urge political figures to shun the inclination to blame media messengers in an attempt to vilify the media for stories unfavourable to them.”

The ACM said that it has also taken note of the extent to which factors within the media industry itself are providing obstacles to the achievement of a truly free press.

“Poor media performance, oppressive industrial relations environments, endemic self-censorship, incompetent media leadership and a lack of professional commitment by media practitioners provide a tragic basis for erosion of free expression and a free press. “We note with concern that the loss of jobs in the news media industry can serve to weaken the fabric of press freedom and free expression. This is particularly disconcerting when we witness declarations of increased corporate profits even as poor financial performance has been cited as the reason for layoffs and cutbacks.”

The ACM said that together with its national affiliates and focal points, they are building a platform for media workers to undertake the work necessary to address some of these shortcomings.

The ACM, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, said it was also looking forward “to the day the regional media leadership takes up the challenge as well”.

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