Libel Act to be amended – PM

(Trinidad Guardian) – The International Press Institute, the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers on Wednesday hailed the government’s move to drop criminal libel from the law books, further enhancing T&T press freedom.

“This is a big, really major step for T&T and I hope the media does not take it lightly,” said IPI director Allison Bethel-McKenzie.

“This initiative by our government shows our Prime Minister is committed to a free media,” added TTPBA head Kiran Maharaj.

“It’s a very important occasion,” said ACM president Wesley Gibbings.
Speaking at a press conference at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair, ahead of today’s World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced she would take a note to Cabinet yesterday to amend the Libel and Defamation Act.

The amendment would prevent any journalist from being criminally charged and prosecuted under Section 9 of the act for malicious publication of any defamatory libel. It also contains safeguards for citizens. Saying the move would enhance the environment for a very robust press and be a giant step towards ensuring press freedom, the PM added: “This will allow the media to engage in responsible journalism and tell their story without fear of criminal liability. My government will remove the onerous restriction in criminal law that imposes a one-year sentence.

“I am optimistic and confident the media has what it takes to meet this heightened challenge and rise to the occasion.”

The IPI is running a worldwide campaign to get rid of criminal defamation. During the IPI Congress in Port-of-Spain last year, the government had promised to examine T&T’s 167-year-old libel law.

Bethel-McKenzie said Wednesday’s move had added T&T to the small number of states worldwide which have progressed on the issue. She said libel laws often led to self-censorship by reporters and the issue also concerned all who had a voice and wished to express it. She added the right to criticise and dissent was mandatory liberties and the keystone to freedom of expression in democratic states and free society depended on the exchange of points and citizens’ ability to criticise and judge those who ruled in their name.

She said criminal libel laws were a hindrance to honest public disclosure and “have no place in modern democracy. I am delighted T&T’s government agrees with me on this issue.”

T&T’s step forward leaves behind places like Bethel-McKenzie’s Florida, USA, home state where she said she could still be prosecuted for criminal libel. She said a new provision would be inserted in the Libel and Defamation Act, which she said has a “crippling, intimidatory effect on journalists.”

Persad-Bissessar, shrugging off the perception that the amendment is a surrender of the state’s rights, said the change in Section 9 would not affect a citizen’s right to seek redress against any media guilty of publishing defamatory statements against them. She said Section 8 of the act would remain part of the law and if the media published defamatory libel against a citizen, knowing the information to be false, it would remain a criminal offence to allow the citizen to seek redress.

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