BRIDGETOWN, Barbados -- The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has released a number of in-depth reviews of major press freedom developments in the past six months in each of the countries of the Americas at the opening of its midyear meeting being held in Barbados from April 4-7.
For the English-speaking Caribbean, the IAPA reported as follows:
This report is prepared without reference to the Barbados Association of Journalists, which has been inactive over the period.
The year was characterized by a continuation of two challenges that have faced media organizations for the past two decades, covert and at times overt attempts as intimidation and manipulation of journalists by operatives of the government or governing party and the failure of journalists to come together and maintain a representative organization.
There is growing evidence that some of the more powerful members of the business community are becoming less averse to attempting to use their advertising power to influence editorial decisions -- and this appears to be most blatant where these persons are aligned to and associated with the governing party.
The most disconcerting threat to press freedom in the country, was the arrest and criminal charging of the publisher, editor in chief and news editor of the Nation Newspapers over the publication of a photograph and story of school children allegedly having sex in a classroom -- which publication arose from the prior extensive circulation of a video of the same alleged sex act on social media. The publication took place on October 26, 2013, and the charge of publishing an offensive photograph under the Protection of Children Act occurred on November 14.
Almost immediately afterward, police also served notice of their intention to officially question the publisher, acting editor at the time and the reporter, over an earlier story that reported on a walk-out from Parliament by the opposition and a press conference moments later by the opposition leader in which she objected to some apparent rulings of the Speaker of the House of Assembly. The three were scheduled to be interviewed by police investigators on March 28, 2014, over the July 2013 story and again police have warned that criminal charges could arise from this “probe”.
Members of the public and the journalism profession continue to express alarm at the clear lack of balance in news reporting by the government controlled lone local television station, whose diet of “news” nightly consists of reports on the speeches and activities of members of the Cabinet or ruling party.
There continues to be cordial and respectful contact between individual journalists and political, business and social leaders with no known instances or state-sponsored or any other organized acts or attempts at physical violence against journalists. One area of improved relations between “officialdom” and the press related to law enforcement. The Royal Barbados Police Force has achieved better press/police relations.
Freedom of the press has been the subject of passionate debate over the years but especially so, in the last months.
Passions flared as the government encountered stiff opposition to three controversial sections which were included in an electronic defamation law that was passed last year.
Section 6 of the Act mandated up to one year in prison for sending by electronic means any information that is “grossly offensive” or known to be false but reproduced in order to cause “annoyance”, “insult” or “ill will”.
Section 16 punished “electronic stalking” – defined as “intimidating, coercing, or annoying another person using an electronic system” – with up to three years in prison.
Section 25 allowed police to make warrantless arrests of anyone “reasonably suspected of committing an offence” under the Act.
Legal experts and freedom-of-expression advocates faulted the then-bill for its “vague” terminology, overly broad scope and failure to include truth as a defense.
They also expressed concern that the bill’s application to reader comment sections of online media could be used to silence legitimate public debate.
Responding to growing public unease over the bill, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell promised to “make the necessary changes”, although an unaltered version was passed and published in Grenada’s Government Gazette several weeks later.
On March 7, Grenada’s official Government Information Service reported that the House of Representatives voted to amend the Electronic Crimes Act 2013 by withdrawing the three sections that the Media Workers Association of Grenada, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, IPI and other groups had criticized for their potentially harmful effects on press freedom and freedom of expression.
The public outcry came just one year after the previous government had repealed criminal libel laws and some felt that the new Keith Mitchell government was using the Electronic Crimes Bill as a re-institution of that former contentious piece of legislation.
A July 2012 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 occurred as part of the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2012.
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 to abolish criminal libel laws across the Caribbean, and urged Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas to remove libel offences from the Criminal Code.
Grenada Attorney General Rohan A. Phillip was quoted as saying that “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.”
There has been no major threat or impediment from the government to journalists undertaking their work independently.
The government said that it is still committed to making changes to the Freedom of Information Act to allow easier access to state documents and other information, amendments are expected to be put before the Parliament during the next financial year which begins in April 2014.
The Parliament has approved the amended Defamation Act 2013 which has now replaced the decades-old libel and slander laws dating back to 1851.
The long awaited Bill includes such critical components as the abolition of criminal libel; the reduction of the limitation period for actions in defamation from six to two years; the abolition of the distinction between libel and slander to establish a single cause of action to be known as defamation; and has replaced the defence of justification with the defence of truth.
Discussions continue on amendments, being proposed by the broadcast regulator, which are deemed to be inimical to financial sustainability of the free-to-air television and radio stations. The Media Association of Jamaica is strongly opposed to the proposals.
Members of the media continue to express serious concerns about limited access to the prime minister. They note that the prime minister gives no regular press conferences and grants very few interviews.
The Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) intervened in the matter and after discussions with the Office of the Prime Minister. Jamaica House proposed protocols to govern access to the prime minister, which were rejected on the basis that the PAJ said that it did not see it necessary to formally agree to the establishment of protocols to secure interviews and comments from state actors, and will remain committed to the pursuit of truth and holding public official accountable.
Trinidad and Tobago
Over this period media entities have benefited from leaks and whistle-blowings, which have made possible impactful coverage of wrongdoings suspected and other.
Crime has provided another major source of eye-catching news. A related area of coverage inevitably spotlighted the response of the answerable authorities, including at the political level, faced by questioning over the adequacy of human, operational, organizational, and intelligence-gathering resources devoted to crime.
Pursuit and presentation of these crime and political scandals have had the effect of hardening attitudes toward the media of those in authority. From government figures have thus come rhetorical accusations of bias and of political affiliation to the opposition. Nor have they hesitated, on occasion, to issue, on the basis of media stories, “pre-action protocol letters” warning or threatening civil litigation for defamation.
Anti-media aggressiveness in rhetoric and in threatened or actual litigation has so far fallen short of realizing potential to intimidate or to induce self-censorship. All players in the media business have, nevertheless, remained in watchful regard over developments, and in readiness to defend free-press values and practices.
The ever-rising prominence of social media has complicated the operations and challenges of heritage or mainstream media. All T&T media that also publish online are increasingly called upon to monitor and regulate site postings by readers, always anonymous, that may be unrestrained, uninformed, misinformed, when not deliberately abusive and mischievous.
Other issues of concern:
Following a series of reports exposing questionable goings-on at one state-owned company, unidentified authors of postings targeted the reporter for defamation. In a campaign of retaliation against coverage that had resulted in removal of the state company’s board and top executives, anonymous posters divulged private details of the reporter’s personal life. The scurrilous online attacks also took aim at the editor in chief of the paper involved, but no recourse was available since the originators of the posts disguised their identities.
In what was interpreted as a punitive sanction and a chilling effect, officials at the residence of the head of state refused entry to a reporter seeking to cover a national event there. The reporter had, on a previous visit to President’s House, taken the opportunity to question the head of state about appointments he had made. It remained unclear whether the ban had the approval of the president himself.
Flexing financial muscle to highly suspect ends, the state information service targeted for predatory recruitment two of the best-known personalities in the leading TV station. The departure of the two, who had been enticed away by pay offers far in advance of industry levels, resulted in a weakening of the affected station’s capacity and output. Such predatory recruitment, calculated to deprive the outfit of key broadcast assets, may have been designed to punish the station for having broadcast adverse or politically controversial stories.
Almost at the time of writing this report, unexpected and unfounded platform attacks by the leader of the opposition on two newspapers, and one named columnist, have given rise to concern shared by media people and others. One daily newspaper editorial so far, headlined “Get facts right before attacking media”, reflected disquiet about the attitude displayed by the opposition leader in falsely accusing the columnist of being a politician in disguise, who had once run for election and lost. Media have continued to watch for developments related to proposed amendments to the powers of the Telecommunications Authority, a regulatory body comprising political appointees.