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Archaic defamation laws threaten Caribbean media

Defamation laws have been used more in the Caribbean and Latin America than other parts of the world. Some countries are now working to overturn the laws.

Dominican radio commentator Melton Pineda’s mouth rankled politicians frequently enough over the years to earn him the nickname “The Bazooka.” This month, after he was prosecuted under the country’s archaic defamation laws, it also earned him three months in prison.

A court found that Mr. Pineda slandered a politically connected former police spokesman when he accused him of ties to the criminal world. In the United States, Pineda could have been forced to pay damages to his victim under a civil suit.

But the Dominican Republic, like most of the Caribbeanand Latin America, considers defamation a criminal matter. Pineda’s penalty was more than $125,000 and a sentence in prison.

Laws that criminalize defamation, relics of colonialism on the books in countries throughout the world but rarely used by most, present one of the biggest threats to the media in the Caribbean, journalists and press freedom groups say. Now, governments in the region are pledging to work to decriminalize defamation. Their efforts are supported by an international press freedom organization that sees the Caribbean as a proving ground for a wider campaign to do away with the laws.

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“It’s like a dark cloud that’s always hanging over you,” says Rawle Titus, a journalist and president of the Media Workers Association of Grenada, which repealed its defamation laws in July as part of an overhaul of its criminal code. “You have to be cautious about what you write and say because you know these laws exist.”

‘It is not forgotten’

In the past 15 years, defamation laws have been invoked “more in the Caribbean and Latin America and less in other parts of the world,” says Scott Griffen, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“These laws are clearly being used to silence journalism,” Mr. Griffen says.

Mr. Pineda’s case garnered wide attention in the Dominican Republic, but cases have also been brought in Grenada, and Antigua and Barbuda in recent years. One of the better known cases internationally took place in Ecuador in 2011 when President Rafael Correa used criminal libel laws against three newspaper executives and a columnist. They were sentenced to three years in prison each and a multi-million dollar fine.

President Correa ultimately pardoned the journalists in a televised address that included the warning, “there is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten.”

This year, Grenada took a step toward reversing this trend when it became the first Caribbean country to repeal the laws. Now the governments of at least three other Caribbean countries – including Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago – have pledged to work on legislation to address the issue.

An IPI delegation recently visited four Caribbean countries to meet with politicians and journalists.

”We think that the Caribbean is an excellent place to start [on a wider campaign] because these are countries open to press freedom,” Griffen says.

Criminal Libel laws ‘always there’

Criminal defamation laws often mirror those in colonizing countries; the English-speaking Caribbean countries, for example, have laws that date directly to England‘s Lord Campbell’s Act, the country’s first obscenity statute adopted in the mid 1800s.

But while England and Wales repealed the law in 2009, only recently have Caribbean countries moved to do the same.

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Grenada saw one of its newspapers, Grenada Today, close after its owners were charged with libel in a spat with the former prime minister in the late 1990s.

“Journalists here are familiar with the case,” says Mr. Titus from the Media Workers Association of Grenada. “Even if you haven’t been threatened directly with criminal libel, it was always there.”

Seeing the laws as impediments to a free press, the Grenada government did away with them in July, says Sen. Glen Noel, who serves as the minister of information and national security.

“We felt [the laws] were not in the best interest of promoting the freedom of the press,” Mr. Noel says. “It was a progressive step to take.”

‘Not just talk’

In the Dominican Republic, a small group of influential congressman says they plan to introduce a bill in coming months. “We hope that the project under discussion will satisfy the” international standards, the group said in a statement. 

The group did not say how they would change the laws. Currently, journalists and individuals can be jailed for as much as two years for defaming the president, elected representatives, or members of state institutions, such as the police or armed forces, per a judge’s ruling.

Mr. Pineda was arrested months after he made his accusations against the former police spokesman, also a trained journalist.

He appealed the ruling on Tuesday and did not return calls for comment with the case pending.

With his conviction Pineda became the second Dominican journalist this year to be convicted under the laws.

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“There’s agreement, especially among media and among members of the governments, that these laws need to be changed,” Mr. Griffen says. “But there needs to be a political movement toward that, not just talk.”