By Scott Griffen
VIENNA – The International Press Institute (IPI) has warmly congratulated Grenada on becoming the first Caribbean state to decriminalise defamation, but urged the Grenadian government to further abolish seditious libel.
According to Grenada’s Ministry of Legal Affairs, a July reform to the country’s criminal code included the repeal of Section 252, which regulated “negligent” and “intentional” libel.
The provision had provided for prison terms of up to six months and two years, respectively.
Section 253, which established the circumstances under which criminal defamation could be committed, was also repealed.
The changes, which came to public light last week, occurred as part of the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2012, a copy of which has been obtained by IPI.
The move came amid lobbying by IPI and the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), an IPI strategic partner.
IPI and the ACM launched a campaign early this year to abolish criminal libel laws across the Caribbean, and urged Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas to remove libel offences from the Criminal Code in a letter sent last May.
Grenada’s Attorney General Rohan A. Phillip explained to IPI over the phone, “This government, even in opposition, felt, as a wide percentage of the world does, that having criminal libel on the books is a formal hindrance to freedom of expression and of the press. We were of the view that civil responsibilities and forms of redress are adequate.”
Asked about the broader implications of repeal, the Attorney General commented that the abolition of criminal libel “helps to keep democracy alive and keep those who hold the reins of power in check.”
Speaking to IPI, Rawle Titus, President of the Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG) said he cautiously welcomed the news of repeal.
“We have to commend the government and see this [repeal] as a step in the right direction,” he said. “We hope they go further and remove seditious libel.”
“We are thrilled that Grenada has decriminalised defamation, setting an example that we hope the rest of the Caribbean will follow”, expressed IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie.
“I want to thank Prime Minister Tillman Thomas for following through on his stated intention to abolish criminal defamation before the end of the year”, she added.
Bethel McKenzie continued: “This is an important day for press freedom not just in Grenada but also for the greater Caribbean. Criminal defamation laws are archaic, redundant, and a threat to democracy and the free exercise of journalism so long as they remain on the books. We call upon all other Caribbean states to follow Grenada’s lead and consign these laws to the dustbin of history.”
IPI’s Executive Director urged Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Barbados in particular to push through pending bills that would decriminalise defamation before the end of 2012.
She also renewed IPI’s call for Trinidad and Tobago to address its libel laws.
Wesley Gibbings, ACM president, added, “This is a singularly important moment in recent Caribbean history for those of us who yearn for conditions more conducive to unfettered free expression. The challenge is now extended to other members of the Caribbean Community family who say they wish to move in this direction, but have yet to find the political will or confidence.”
The decriminalisation of libel in Grenada is particularly significant, given that the country was one of the few in the Caribbean to have applied the law in recent years.
In 1999, George Worme, then editor of Grenada Today, was arrested and charged with criminal libel after his paper published a letter that accused then-Prime Minister Keith Mitchell of bribery in the 1999 general elections.
The case ultimately reached the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, which serves as the final court of appeal for much of the English-speaking Caribbean.
In George Worme and Grenada Today v. Commissioner of Police of Grenada (2004), the Council ruled that Section 252 amounted to a reasonable restriction on the freedom of expression guarantees provided in the Grenadian Constitution.
Despite the repeal of Sections 252 and 253, seditious libel, regulated under Section 327, remains a criminal offence in Grenada and can result in up to two years in prison.
Section 328, which makes insulting the Queen a misdemeanor, also remains on the books.
Bethel McKenzie added: “Despite this unquestionable victory for media freedom, the Grenadian government should take the last step and remove seditious libel from the Criminal Code.”
Titus reminded IPI that seditious libel charges have also been brought recently in Grenada, most notably against journalist Stanley Charles in 1998 under the Keith Mitchell-led New National Party (NNP) administration.
In June, IPI in partnership with the ACM conducted a two-week advocacy mission to Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago as part of IPI’s campaign to abolish criminal libel and insult laws in the Caribbean.
IPI released a final mission report this week. At IPI’s 2012 World Congress in Trinidad and Tobago, IPI members approved the “Declaration of Port of Spain,” which calls on Caribbean governments to repeal criminal defamation legislation in support of strong, free, and independent media.
Also at the congress, Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar pledged to bring the island nation’s criminal defamation laws in line with international standards.
(Scott Griffen is Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean)