International Press Institute to visit Guyana as part of regional lobby on defamation laws

Guyana is one of the stops on a new leg of a Caribbean campaign by the International Press Institute (IPI) for the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws.

A release yesterday from the Vienna, Austria-based organization said its new mission will run from April 15 to May 6, 2013 and see visits to Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda and Suriname, among others.

Alison Bethel McKenzie
Alison Bethel McKenzie

The IPI delegation will comprise Alison Bethel McKenzie, IPI executive director; John Yearwood, The Miami Herald’s national and world editor and president of the IPI North American National Committee; Wesley Gibbings, president, Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM); Scott Griffen, IPI press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean; Bert Wilkinson, ACM executive member from Guyana; and Kiran Maharaj, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association.

IPI, which held its annual congress in the Caribbean for the first time last year in Trinidad and Tobago, said that during its visits it will seek to win support from government and non-governmental officials for the rescinding of defamation and insult laws. Also on the agenda will be the safety and protection of journalists.

Libel laws in Guyana are antiquated and make it attractive for public officials to sue even where malice is not evident. Legal experts here have pointed out that the common law which is followed here provides that once the offending statement is proved false, malice is implied and need not be specifically proved. This is likely to be an area where IPI will press for changes.

Safety of journalists is also an area likely to be addressed as senior government officials have frequently used scathing language on journalists here which could have the effect of turning them into targets.

The IPI statement added that as part of its commitment to promoting the highest standards of journalism, it will lead training workshops here and in the Dominican Republic, focusing on journalistic ethics and techniques of investigative journalism.

The CEO of Trinidad’s One Caribbean Media, Dawn Thomas hailed the visit.

“IPI’s mission to the Caribbean is very timely in light of the continued challenges faced by regional media and demonstrates IPI’s tremendous commitment to safeguard press freedom in the Caribbean,” Thomas, a member of IPI’s Executive Board, said.

She added “There are just too many existing laws that can impede the work of journalists and expose them to criminal sanctions. I look forward to co-operation from the regional governments on this mission so that real and significant progress could be made in the pursuit of a free and responsible press in the region”.

IPI, which has issued a number of statements on developments in Guyana and the rest of the region, including on the cut-off by the government of advertisements to Stabroek News in 2006, will also visit the Dominican Republic to follow up on the removing of jail time for defamation from the draft penal code.  IPI will also advise on changes to the law which regulates press activities and which maintains criminal punishments for defamation and insult.

IPI will also seek further support for the Declaration of Port of Spain, issued at last year’s congress which calls for the abolition of ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation legislation in the Caribbean.

In Trinidad, the release said that the delegation will encourage further progress on efforts to modernise the country’s defamation law. IPI recently issued a statement criticizing an attack by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on the media.

“IPI and ACM look forward to continuing their important advocacy work on the issue of criminal defamation in the Caribbean.  While press freedom is already relatively strong in many Caribbean states, we believe that the repeal of criminal defamation is critical to ensuring that no journalist is pressured to self-censor, or faces the threat of prison for doing his or her job,” Bethel McKenzie stated in the release.

Following the mission, Bethel McKenzie will speak at World Press Freedom Day observances in Willemstad, Curaçao on May 3rd, at the invitation of the Curaçao National Commission for UNESCO.

IPI, created in 1950, is a global network dedicated to safeguarding press freedom and the improvement of the practices of journalism, among other objectives.

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