By Caribbean News Now contributor
ST GEORGE’S, Grenada -- The Grenada parliament on Friday passed legislation to punish people with hefty fines and/or lengthy jail terms for what is termed "offensive online comments".
However, the expression "offensive" is referred to in vague and broad terms, leading many people, especially journalists, to fear that anything could be regarded as offensive by the New National Party (NNP) government led by Prime Minster Dr Keith Mitchell who, following general elections in February, currently enjoys control of all 15 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Mitchell has a long history of using the law to prosecute and/or otherwise intimidate local and international media and journalists in attempts to suppress unfavourable reporting.
Now, according to the new law, complaints about offensive comments would be filed with police. A judge would then decide if the message was offensive. Those found guilty could be fined up to $37,000 or face three years in prison.
Legal Affairs Minister Elvin Nimrod
"We have problems when some use the technology to engage in mischief," said Legal Affairs Minister Elvin Nimrod. "We have to put structures in place to ensure that persons and, in some cases, companies and characters are not tarnished."
"A person will be able to take that evidence of the posting and use it as evidence in the court," Nimrod added. "People have to act responsibly to others."
Although the law is the first of its kind in the Caribbean, other countries have been talking about policing online social media content.
In April, Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson announced that The Bahamas government was working on legislation that will police information posted on the internet.
“I don’t think anyone ever anticipated the impact of social media and how powerful it is,” Maynard-Gibson said.
“Cyberspace isn’t going anywhere, so it’s a 21st century issue and in conjunction [with] jurisdictions around the world we will be bringing in place and we are working on it right now, what our laws need to be, based upon internationally accepted standards. We have to balance freedom of the press with protecting the public,” she added.
Earlier in April, Bahamas Commissioner of Police Ellison Greenslade warned that the police would press charges against people who post “lewd” or “obscene” pictures on social media websites.
In Grenada, other Caribbean nationals living and working in Grenada have expressed concern over the new law and it is like that regional leaders and media associations will be drawn into the debate.
One regional journalist working in Trinidad has already called upon that country’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to “take a stand for Trinidad and Tobago nationals everywhere” in relation to the “negative impact … of this draconian law” in Grenada.
“This infraction of the Grenada constitution by the Grenada government is an imposition on Grenadians, Trinidad and Tobago nationals and the online community … and a serious infringement on the rights and freedom of speech of a people,” the journalist continued, adding “Usually media associations locally, regionally and internationally take up these fights. But it will most certainly be an unprecedented, refreshing and welcome move to see another government stand with the people of Grenada and the online audience in getting the Grenada government to rethink and review this archaic law.”
Persad-Bissessar was reminded that she recently joined with the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) in promising support for freedom of speech for all Trinidad and Tobago nationals, especially in the media.
"The continued presence of criminal defamation as a feature of our legal environment is a slur on claims that our countries thrive in an environment of openness, transparency and freedom. There are warning signs that much more work needs to be done to secure the guarantee of even those freedoms listed in our bills of rights," Wesley Gibbings, ACM president said last year.
The matter of criminal libel has recently been the subject of a push by IPI, the world’s oldest press freedom organisation, to decriminalise defamation throughout the Caribbean.
Ironically, just last November, IPI congratulated Grenada’s then Prime Minister Tillman Thomas on a move to eliminate criminal penalties for defamation under Section 252 of the Criminal Code of Grenada, which established the offence of intentional criminal libel.
“Grenadian journalists will be increasingly empowered to investigate matters of public interest without fear of the need to self censor. This in turn will strengthen transparency, accountability and democracy in Grenada,” IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
“Bravo for a job well done,” McKenzie said.
IPI said it hoped other Caribbean governments would follow the lead set by Grenada to repeal criminal defamation laws, which had been used to prosecute Grenadian journalists, from the island’s Criminal Code.
Thomas also reiterated his commitment to remove seditious libel from the Grenada Criminal Code, an issue that achieved considerable prominence in 1999 following the arrest of broadcast journalist Stanley Charles on a charge of seditious libel.
The police action against Charles came less than a week after two charges of criminal libel were brought against the managing editor of Grenada Today, George Worme, in connection with a letter published by the newspaper accusing Mitchell of bribing voters in the 1999 general election.
Grenada Today was put into liquidation in 2009 as a result of the legal action.
Thomas’s approach to the matter may well have been driven by his own experience in 2004 when, as then leader of the opposition, he was himself threatened with prosecution for criminal libel by the former Mitchell administration.
At that time, the issue of freedom of the press in Grenada had become a matter of great concern to the local media and others and, in June 2004, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a strongly-worded letter to then Prime Minister Mitchell, calling on him to "desist from any efforts to curtail the work of the press."
The letter said the CPJ was "alarmed by the Grenadian government's recent attempts to intimidate the local media, including legal actions against the press for reporting alleged wrongdoing by you."
The organisation referred to a criminal libel lawsuit in Grenada brought by Mitchell against Miami-based financial newsletter Offshore Alert and its publisher.
Also, in May 2004, Leroy Noel, a Grenadian freelance reporter, was held for questioning about the content of an article that reported on connections between members of the ruling New National Party and people accused of corruption.
Four police officers detained Noel, who was a frequent contributor to our predecessor publication Caribbean Net News, while he was on his way to work at around 6:15 am. Authorities released Noel four hours later without charge.
"The recent actions of intimidation taken by your government are a clear attempt to obstruct Grenadian journalists from doing their work of disseminating information," the CPJ told Mitchell.
In August 2007, Caribbean Net News was named in a writ issued in Grenada by Mitchell, alleging the publication of libelous statements contained in an article written by Lloyd Noel, a former attorney general of Grenada.
In his article, Noel referred to the apparent possibility that Mitchell was a US citizen, as well as a citizen of Grenada. The implication of this at the time, if true, was that Mitchell would likely have been disqualified by the Constitution of Grenada from standing for election as a Member of Parliament.
The assertion that Mitchell was a US citizen first surfaced in 2007 in pleadings filed in a New York court by victims of convicted fraudster Eric Restheiner seeking to recover the sum of US$1 million in cash allegedly paid to Mitchell by Restheiner.
According to Noel, the writ filed by Mitchell was another example of a frequently used ploy in Grenada to prevent parliamentary debate on such issues, given that the Speaker has consistently ruled that any such debate would then be sub judice.
Mitchell’s action was eventually dismissed by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court.