Research helps change laws in Caribbean nations



Research by the School of Journalism’s Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies is helping to change criminal defamation laws in several Caribbean nations.

The center has produced several reports for the International Press Institute in conjunction with IPI’s Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean.

Last year, School of Journalism doctoral student A.Jay Wagner, and associate professor and center director Anthony Fargo produced a paper for IPI based on research into criminal defamation laws in the United States. Once common, such laws have been repealed in all but 15 states and are rarely used.

IPI requested the report after leaders of various Caribbean nations questioned why they should repeal their criminal defamation and insult laws while the United States still retained such laws.

After CIMLAPS produced that report, IPI asked Fargo to research international standards on criminal defamation and compare laws in various Caribbean nations to those standards.

Fargo examined declarations of rights and conventions adopted by the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States and the African Union; decisions by the United States Supreme Court, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; policy statements by the OAS, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and similar organizations; and statements by non-governmental organizations and media reports reacting to specific instances of journalists being jailed or fined for criminal defamation or “insulting” a public official or institution. He also incorporated material that Wagner had gathered earlier for the U.S. report.

Based on his analysis of the international view of criminal defamation and insult laws, Fargo produced reports that commented on various provisions of the laws of the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. The reports compared provisions in those nations’ laws to the prevailing standards in the international community and pointed out which provisions seemed to be in conflict with international standards.

Scott Griffen, IPI’s press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the reports provided “essential support” for IPI’s campaign to repeal the laws.

In April, IPI representatives traveled to the Caribbean and presented the CIMLAPS reports, among other material, to government leaders and press association representatives in the three countries.

Griffen said in a recent e-mail from IPI’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, that IPI had been successful in persuading Grenada and Jamaica to abolish criminal libel.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Cabinet approved a bill eliminating one of the more controversial aspects of its criminal defamation law. The bill is pending in Parliament.

In the Dominican Republic, legislation is pending to make numerous changes to defamation laws suggested in the CIMLAPS report, including the elimination of prison sentences and the reduction of fines for criminal defamation.

“IPI has been very grateful for the expert work undertaken by the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies as part of our Campaign to Repeal Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean,” Griffen said. “The analyses of specific criminal defamation laws in several Caribbean countries have provided governments with critical advice on how to reform their laws to meet international standards.”

Fargo noted that the reports CIMLAPS prepared were based on a consensus about the law drawn from various international sources. The reports also noted that there was no consensus about whether criminal defamation and insult laws should be repealed entirely, despite concerns that such laws are sometimes used to silence critics of government officials. The reports also included examples of cases in which courts had upheld convictions of journalists and other citizens for libel.

“When we were doing research into whether a center like CIMLAPS was needed, one thing we heard from press advocacy groups was that they needed a source of unbiased research about the law of free expression,” Fargo said. “In that spirit, the reports we have prepared for IPI have noted that the international community has not embraced freedom of expression to the extent that the United States has or that IPI might prefer. In order to have credibility, the research we produce must not take sides at the expense of the truth, no matter our sympathies.”

Griffen agreed that the independent nature of the reports made them more valuable.

“Since IPI is an advocacy-based organization, we feel that the center’s reports add an essential legal and academic foundation to our arguments,” he said. “This element helps to convince governments that the repeal of criminal defamation is not only a goal of media-rights groups such as IPI, but also, in fact, has support from international jurisprudence and human-rights bodies. The reports are always presented as the independent work of the center and of its director.”

Fargo has recently completed a fourth report analyzing the criminal defamation and insult laws of Suriname. Griffen said that report will be presented to the speaker of the Surinamese Parliament as part of a joint IPI/Surinamese Association of Journalists package on the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws in the country.

Fargo and doctoral student Kyle Heatherly also are working on a report for IPI about the right to publish anonymously. That report, due at the end of the year, will examine the current legal status of the right to be anonymous around the world and best practices of media organizations in dealing with anonymous comments on their websites.

Griffen said the report is important in response to a growing movement in the Caribbean to enact legislation restricting anonymous speech.

“We are proud to count the center as a partner in our efforts to support press freedom in the Caribbean and Latin America via the enactment of fair and modern libel laws,” Griffen said.

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