The big legal news rippling across the Caribbean Sea this week is the revelation that the Tillman Thomas government in Grenada has made history by being the first Commonwealth Caribbean territory to abolish criminal defamation and thus bring its libel laws, at least on this front, in conformity with the exigencies of a twenty-first century democracy.
According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Grenada’s Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2012 abolished sections 252 and 253 of the Grenada Criminal Code which imposed criminal sanctions for libel. The repeal was a big victory for the International Press Institute which has been ardently campaigning for the abolition of criminal defamation in all Commonwealth Caribbean States, advocating instead the reliance on civil actions exclusively. Seditious libel however still remains on the books as a criminal offence under s 357 of the Criminal Code. For a full background on the work of the IPI on this front, see here.
Freedom of the press is held to be one of the central tenets of a functioning liberal democracy. The rationale behind press freedom is that a robust and independent press keeps public officials in check by informing the populace of their actions, calling them out on their shortcomings, while also providing information which would allow the public to make informed decisions in their own interest. However, the existence of antiquated defamation laws on the statute books of Commonwealth Caribbean countries has led many to criticize these vestiges of the colonial era as fetters on the efficacy of the fourth estate in scrutinizing our public officials, and thereby serving as a barrier to true democratic governance.
The zeal with which Commonwealth Caribbean territories have tended to cling to our pre-independence laws has been heavily criticized, but in the case of our libel laws, the situation becomes even more perplexing. While it is accepted that a delicate balance must be maintained between the much deserved need to protect a person’s reputation and the equally deserved right of the public to access information, the harshness of Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ libel laws can be contrasted with the iniquitously broad freedom of expression privileges granted to parliamentarians on the floor of parliament under the convention of parliamentary privilege. Is the freedom of speech of parliamentarians therefore more valuable than that of those whose role is to serve as the watch dogs of our post-independence democracies?
Defamation legislation throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean ranges in vintage from semi-modern to archaic acts dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. With sluggish statutory change, if any, it has been up to the common law to adapt the laws of defamation to the needs of modern twenty-first century democracies. The defence of qualified privilege is one which has not generally found much success in case law before the landmark House of Lords decision in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Limited  which recognized the duty of the press to communicate to the world at large and also recognised a public interest defence which commentators have called the “Reynolds defence”. In Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead further clarified the Reynolds defence by giving some guidance on the factors to be taken into consideration when deciding whether the defence of qualified privilege applies.
Criminal libel prosecutions remain alive and well in the Caribbean, although their frequency varies according to territory. In the recent Grenadian case of George Worme and Grenada Today v Commissioner of Police of Grenada (2004) which had been referred to the Privy Council, Lord Rodger importantly rejected submissions by counsel that then section 258 was too narrowly drafted to allow for the raising of the Reynolds defence. However, the court also regrettably held that criminal libel was “a justifiable part of the law of the democratic society in Grenada”. Rulings such as this reinforce the cloud of fear hanging over regional journalists in execution of their ‘watch dog’ function.
Penalties for criminal libel vary across the region. Before its abolition, section 252 of the Grenada Civil Code provided that the penalty of conviction for negligent libel was imprisonment for six months, while two year imprisonment existed in the case of intentional libel. The Barbados Defamation Act (Cap 199) of 1997, one of the more ‘modern’ acts, is a bit more lenient at Article 34(3) as it gives the Court the discretion to impose a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both.Despite the talks and promises of libel reform decades after many of us have achieved independence, our journalists still have the risk of criminal prosecution as an ‘occupational hazard’ of their profession. It is little wonder therefore that self censorship by media houses is endemic in several Commonwealth Caribbean states, including Barbados. It is a practice which, though done to shield these entities from prosecution, is contrary to the public interest.
Moreover, stringent libel laws have tended to make the constitutional guarantee of right to access to information virtually nugatory, particularly where freedom of information acts do not exist. In Barbados, the proposed Freedom of Information Act which was supposed to buttress the constitutional guarantee of right to access to information under section 20 of the Constitution of Barbados by, inter alia, providing greater public access to information held by government bodies, has not yet been passed and neither have the proposed defamation reforms. On the contrary, the UK, from whom our defamation laws were inherited, abolished criminal libel and sedition per section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and is currently in the process of passing a new Defamation Act (currently HL Bill 41) which is aimed at modernizing that country’s defamation laws.
In countries which pride ourselves as democratic states, it is high time that we purge our statute books of these archaic and anti-democratic laws. As seen in Grenada, this is not a move most politicians would make without strong lobbying by local, regional and international civil society. Despite this, Grenada’s big step towards the complete removal of criminal defamation should be applauded and one can only hope that other post-independence Commonwealth territories, including Barbados, would follow suit in the interest of greater democracy.
Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at@LicyLaw.