Jamaica hailed for removing criminal libel laws, penalties

Defamation offenses still part of law in Cayman

In what has been hailed as landmark legislation, Jamaica’s Parliament has revamped the country’s Libel and Slander Act, eliminating provisions that allow the government to charge individuals or organizations with criminal libel for making “outrageous” statements.

Jamaica is believed to be the first country in the Caribbean to remove such penalties from its books. The legislation is expected to be signed into law in the near future.

The Press Association of Jamaica said amendments include the removal of a provision under which people could be charged with criminal libel for making “outrageous” comments.

“We urge regional countries to follow Jamaica’s courageous example,” Institute Director Alison Bethel said in a Wednesday statement.

The parliamentary overhaul also adds a “wire service defense” to the defamation law that says local media organizations can use reports from reputable sources without first checking for accuracy.

Jamaican judges, not juries, will now determine damages for media organizations found guilty of publishing defamatory information. The press association said this “will result in more reasonable fines which will not threaten the existence of media houses.”

Penal Code in Cayman

The Cayman Islands Penal Code [2010 revision] maintains offenses for both defamation and sedition. An entire subsection of the law under “offences injurious to the public in general” deals with defamation.

Under the Penal Code, “defamatory matter” means matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his or her profession or trade by an injury to his or her reputation.

In Cayman, an individual may also be prosecuted for making defamatory statements about a dead person.

The publication of defamatory material, known as libel, is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

There are certain defenses under the Penal Code to the publication of defamatory material including:

If the matter is published by the governor of the legislative assembly in any official capacity or any official document or proceeding.

If the matter is published by the Cayman Islands Cabinet, the governing body consisting of elected ministers, the deputy governor and the attorney general.

If the matter is published in the course of any judicial proceedings by a person taking part in those proceedings, including pleadings before the court and witnesses of the court.

If the matter is a “fair report” of anything said done or published in the Cabinet or Legislative Assembly.

Other “conditional privileges” apply in certain circumstances that would allow a defense in the publication of libelous material.

Jamaica’s press association applauded the overhaul of the country’s libel and slander law, which had been based on a 17th century law from Britain and had long been criticized as an outdated colonial holdover.

Media organizations in Jamaica complained for years that the difficulty and cost of fighting lawsuits, along with the risk of punishing judgments, stifled the press and freedom of expression. Some said they squashed potentially contentious stories over the years because of the risk of being sued.

Both houses of the Jamaican Parliament passed legislation amending a libel and slander law authorized by the island in 1851 and a defamation act passed in 1961. Attorney General Patrick Atkinson said in a Wednesday statement that the distinction between libel and slander will soon be abolished once the bill is signed into law.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.