Monday, January 20, 2014

Commentary: Why is the PNM not supporting more media freedom?

File: Colm Imbert - 2010
The opposition in Trinidad and Tobago is so obsessed with opposing that it may have lost sight of some critical issues and in the process of opposing it may betray a measure of its own hypocrisy.

The debate on the government's proposed amendment to the Libel and Defamation Act is such a case.

The state has decided that Section 9 of the act is too harsh on the free media and agreed that it would remove it in the interest of allowing journalists to operate with fear of being jailed.

Section 9 of the Libel and Defa­mation Act, Chap 11:16, states: "If any person mali­ciously pub­lish­es any defa­matory libel, upon conviction thereof, he is liable to pay a fine and to impri­son­ment for one year."

Opposition MP Colm Imbert seemed to be unable to understand why government members who have complained about media bias are supporting this measure. 

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan has explained why. It's because the act would retain Section 8, which states: "If any person maliciously pub­lishes any defamatory libel, knowing the same to be false, he is liable on conviction to imprisonment for two years and to pay such fine as the court directs."

In arguing in favour of the amendment Ramlogan told legislators Section 9 has the potential to undermine freedom that journalists enjoy. 

"A provision such as Section 9, if it were to be strictly enforced, could have the effect of crippling the entire journalistic pro­fession," Ramlogan said, adding that it is wrong to suggest that the Govern­ment is removing all the legal protections from individuals who may feel aggrieved by libellous publications.

He said the important phrase in Section 8, which is being retained, is ‘knowing the same to be false’ which means that persons are still protected and the media have a legal obligation not to intentionally defame people.

The AG made it clear that Government is not inter­fering with the right of individuals to sue for libel. The mate­rial dif­ference between Section 8 and Section 9 is the prose­cution, under Section 8, needs to prove malice and knowledge, while un­der Section 9 of the act, the prose­cution only needs to prove malice.

The People's National Movement (PNM) claims that it supports a free media but is arguing against a measure that advances freedom for journalists and the media.

In his contribution to the debate Imbert objected to removing Section 9, stating that it provides "the only protection" for pub­lic figures. "I don’t think we should remove Section 9 in its enti­re­ty...leave it as a criminal offence."

While Imbert agreed that it would "horrible" to jail journalists he wants to criminalise them. 

"It is all very well to quote from statements of the In­ter­na­tional Press Institute and other organisations that seek the interest of journalists and so on—they have a job to do —but when one is dealing with something like this, which fundamentally affects the jobs and the lives of members of this honourable House and the private citizens, there is a need for balance,” Imbert said.

This debate is revealing the true nature of the opposition. Imbert called on PNMites during the 2010 election campaign to "deal" with the media. "You must deal with them, this media that we have, this television station...I watched TV6 tonight and the first story is Jack Warner..second story is Kamla...I eh see PNM yet you know," Imbert said at a political meeting.

Then there is the very public display of media intimidation by Patrick Manning, who was so enraged by comments made on the radio that he went directly to the radio station with his full security to complain. And he said he would do it again "if the spirit moves me".

While the government has complained about media bias - and with good reason - it has never made any attempt to interfere with the media's freedom even when the media acted irresponsibly in reporting false stories without correcting them.

In fact Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is on record as defending the media's rights and praising the media for keeping the government on its toes.

This amendment, which further protects media freedom, is a clear demonstration that the government respects the media's rights. And Imbert's position betrays his and his party's hostility to any media organisation that doesn't support its agenda.

Media have a right to operate freely and an obligation to report on the basis of truth, fairness and balance. And if the Imbert and the PNM accept that - as they claim they have - there is no reason why they should oppose this amendment.

Unless their agenda is really to have the media dance only according to the PNM's music.

Jai Parasram - 19 Jan. 2014

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai