Jamaica decriminalises defamation

Jamaica has now become the first independent Caribbean country to have no criminal defamation laws – including seditious libel – on the books, according to the International Press Institute (IPI).

Grenada abolished criminal libel in 2012, but maintains laws criminalising seditious libel and insult of the monarch, IPI said in its congratulatory message to Jamaica.

The Jamaica Gleaner reported yesterday that after years of lobbying by the media and civil society interests to overhaul Jamaica’s libel and slander laws, the House of Representatives on November 5 passed the Defamation Bill 2013, revamping the country’s libel legislation.  The bill promotes speedy and non-litigious methods of resolving disputes concerning the publication of defamatory matter.

According to the IPI, the new law replaces both the 19th-century Libel and Slander Act and the 1963 Defamation Act and in addition to the repeal of criminal libel, the reforms include the elimination of the distinction between slander and libel; the reduction of the limitation period for actions from six years to two; replacement of the defence of justification with the defence of truth; the introduction of the defence of innocent dissemination; and a stipulation that damages shall be at the sole discretion of judges, not juries.

The gestation process of the bill took more than six years after then Prime Minister Bruce Golding, appointed a committee chaired by former parliamentarian and legal expert, Hugh Small to review the laws.  The Small Committee submitted its report in February, 2008, after which a joint select committee of Parliament was appointed to review its recommendations and consult with representatives of the government, media, and civil society.

As part of its campaign to repeal criminal defamation in the Caribbean, the IPI had lobbied for the bill’s passage along with its strategic partner, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM). They met several times with government officials in support of the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) and the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ).

The bill is expected to be granted assent by Governor-General Sir Patrick Linton Allen.

According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Attorney General Patrick Atkinson said the act ensures that the law of defamation does not place unreasonable limits on freedom of expression as well as the publication and discussion of topics of public importance.

The IPI said that while the new law represents enormous progress, it will be critical for the Jamaican courts to interpret its terms so as to always favour the media’s right to publish information in the public interest. Importantly, the courts should consider financial damages as just one option for the redress of defamation claims. Printed corrections or apologies, for example, should be avenues of the first resort for restoring reputation if damage is judged to have occurred.

The Jamaica Gleaner explained that the new defamation law makes provisions for the publisher of defamatory matter to make amends by way of correction and apology and may include compensation.  It also said that an apology may be used in mitigation of damages, and where made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any defamatory matter alleged to have been published, does not constitute an implied or express admission of fault or liability.

It reported that another feature of the law was the expansion of the term ‘electronic communication’ to include text, sound, and images.

The new law removes the award of damages from the hands of the jury as it is the judge who determines the amount of damages, if any, that should be awarded to claimants.

The Jamaica Gleaner said that in determining the amount of damages to be awarded in any defamatory proceedings, the court shall ensure that there is an appropriate and rational relationship between the harm sustained by the claimant and the amount of damages awarded.

The PAJ and MAJ, supported by IPI, had pressed for further reforms that were ultimately not included, such as a cap on general damages, a reduction in the limitation period to one year, and a specification that proof of ‘special damage’ be required to recover damages in a suit.

In a message, Executive Director of the IPI Alison Bethel McKenzie congratulated the Jamaican Parliament for staying the course and removing criminal defamation from the country’s law books. PAJ President Jenni Campbell said, “This is an important step in increasing freedom of expression and by extension press freedom in Jamaica.”

While the IPI congratulated Jamaica on repeal of criminal defamation it urges Jamaica’s Caribbean neighbours to follow suit.  It said that the legislatures of two additional countries visited by IPI as part of the campaign – Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic – are also currently considering bills that would partially decriminalise libel.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda has also announced that a bill to decriminalise defamation will be introduced to Parliament in the first quarter of 2014.

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