Thursday, February 20, 2014

Commentary: MATT should welcome amendment to defamation laws

I am amazed that the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) has a problem with the decision of the government to amend the country’s ancient defamation laws to drop section 9 and retain section 8.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced late last year her government’s intention to make the change, which the opposition refused to support.

She made the announcement in the presence of the Executive Director of International Press Institute (IPI), Alison Bethel McKenzie, who praised the move.

"Today is a really great day, this is a really big step for Trinidad and Tobago and for my colleagues around the world and I hope that the media does not take it lightly," McKenzie said at a joint news conference with the Prime Minister in June last year.

"Criminal libel laws are a hindrance to honest public disclosure and have no place in a modern democracy," she added.

The President of the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), Kiran Maharaj, said the initiative "shows that our Prime Minister is committed to a free media."

And Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), also welcomed the move. 

PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar with Kiran Maharaj, Alison Bethel McKenzie and Wesley Gibbings
Persad-Bissessar, who has always supported media freedom, said, “Robust discussion and even disagreement, criticism and consensus are the blood that flows through the veins of the free media. It must never be mistaken as an attack on press freedom but rather reflection and manifestation of that very free press.”

So what is the issue that MATT is raising?

The repealed section 9 states, "If any person maliciously publishes any defamatory libel, upon conviction thereof he is liable to pay a fine and to imprisonment for one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."

Section 8 of the Act, which is retained, 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."

There are some important words in the section that remains on the law books. These are “maliciously publishes” and “knowing the same to be false”.

Why would anyone – especially a journalist – maliciously publish something knowing it to be false and still expect to be protected from prosecution? It seems that is what MATT wants.

In other words, by asking for both sections to be repealed to guarantee press freedom MATT is suggesting that journalists must be free to publish malicious information knowing such to be false – without fear of prosecution.

Too many people talk about media freedom without also accepting that such freedom carries great responsibility. Freedom is never absolute. It does not mean that journalists and media establishments have to the right to be reckless without facing some sort of sanction.

How can MATT say the government action is in contravention to the fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago in Chapter 1:4(k), which ensures freedom of the press?

Journalists already enjoy the liberty and autonomy to make responsible decisions to the benefit of our society without the fear of imprisonment.

But there must be checks and balances to protect citizens. What MATT is asking is for is a blank cheque for journalists to malign people and sully their character without taking responsibility to answer for their actions. That is wrong; citizens need as much protection as journalists.

If the government removes section 8 it is handing the ‘free press’ the freedom to attack people and institutions with lies and fabricated stories without fear of legal action. That would expose everyone to abuse by the free press.

No government of Trinidad and Tobago has gone this far to protect media and their right to freedom of expression. And that is why MATT and the media should be celebrating, not complaining. So long as the media act responsibly no one has anything to fear.

Jai Parasram -21 February 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