Whether the International Press Institute’s call on Caribbean governments to decriminalise libel will fall on fertile ground remains to be seen. According to the IPI’s executive director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, their campaign to get the criminal defamation laws in the region changed had a good start.
“In three of the countries we visited, top elected officials expressed agreement with our position that criminal libel laws are colonial-era relics designed to suppress dissent and criticism and have no place in the modern democracies of the Caribbean.”
But politicians always like to claim that they are defenders of democracy. Indeed, the media are often their best friends – when they’re in Opposition. Their actions, however, generally contradict this rhetorical support. Even before the Section 34 debacle last month, certain politicians and their salaried supporters were using the social media to make personal attacks on journalists for exposing public interest issues.
Such attacks have only multiplied as the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration tries to get past the scandal. But such attempts to discredit the messenger are not peculiar to this regime. It happened with the previous PNM administration, and it will probably happen with future ones.
This is why keeping libel as a criminal offence – meaning that the price for free speech can be jail – undermines the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press guaranteed in the Constitution. Without the freedom to trenchantly criticise public figures, the status quo is less likely to change. And the key point here is that such freedom of speech applies almost entirely to persons in public life.
The media do not wish to have untrammelled freedom to broadcast any and all allegations about anyone. But, just as Parliament has protected speech in order to ensure robust debate, so too do progressive libel laws help both journalists and citizens to treat more effectively with public matters.
The principle which informs such laws is that persons in public life should not have the same privileges as private citizens, precisely because holders of public office wield such power that public comment should be allowed a wide latitude in order to prevent abuse.
Trinidad and Tobago’s media, described as large and vibrant in the IPI report, enjoy a freedom of expression which in some ways exceeds that of more developed societies. But the country’s libel laws have not kept pace with socio-political reality, and so stand as a continuous threat to free speech.
Bringing Trinidad and Tobago’s 19th century libel laws more in line with modern practice would help the public’s right to know. No political administration has made this a part of their legislative agenda, however, and that is partly because, the less the public knows, the more secure politicians feel.