Aug 04, 2016 – The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) has noted with concern continuing efforts by some countries of the Caribbean to address legitimate issues associated with harmful online content through legislation which, in our view, tramples on important principles associated with freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Some of our international partners, including the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), have recently addressed in fair detail offending sections of the Cybercrime Bill of St Vincent and the Grenadines. We endorse their positions on such matters. These issues have also attracted the attention of other institutions with specialisation in this area and we have undertaken to keep them informed.
Like us, these organisations and experts have conceded that enlightened official intervention to address the worst abuses is required so that people are not harmed by the expression of others through online content. Indeed, the Code of Conduct for Caribbean journalists, introduced by our organisation, specifically references the minimising of harm when it comes to mass media content. We believe that the principle holds for all communicators regardless of the platform.
However, we are of the view that the criminalising of expression brings with it clear and present dangers to an environment in which the value of free expression is respected and observed. This is a point that has been embraced by governments in Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago where our campaigns against criminal defamation have led to a better understanding of the inherent dangers of invoking criminal law under such circumstances.
We have noted Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ strong views on the matter but we have also recognised their lack of harmony with principles embraced by other Caribbean nations on the matter.
Also of particular concern are what appear to be sweeping measures to address the issue of cyberbullying and ominous reference in Section 7 of the Bill to the requirement of “lawful excuse or justification” in acquiring “computer data” not meant for the person accessing such content.
A similar measure in proposed Trinidad and Tobago legislation was eventually acknowledged to be potentially harmful to the practice of journalism and is being re-considered by the current administration.
There has obviously been much concern about the new challenges offered by online communication in the Caribbean and, indeed, much undue haste in addressing them. In some instances (defamation for example) offences are already covered under existing legislation and the opportunity now appears to be offered to impose greater stringency to its application.
We agree that carefully crafted official measures are important to signal the need for higher levels of accountability and care by communicators using social media in particular, but the resort to the draconian and disproportionately punitive is more likely to cause harm rather than good.
Thoughtful, international deliberation on the chilling impact of criminal defamation on freedom of expression is now well advanced and its negative value has been noted by Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression of the United Nations, the Americas, Europe and Africa.
To cite one of several individual and joint declarations on the issue, the Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in 2005 argued that: “In democratic societies, the activities of public officials must be open to public scrutiny. Criminal defamation laws intimidate individuals from exposing wrongdoing by public officials and such laws are therefore incompatible with freedom of expression.”
We also reference the “Declaration of Port of Spain” approved by the General Assembly of the International Press Institute in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on June 26, 2012 which calls on governments of the region “as a matter of urgency to abolish ‘insult laws’ and criminal defamation legislation and common law criminal defamation rules, as well as review civil defamation laws and all other laws that restrict media freedom.”
We urge that the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines seriously reconsider its position on this particular matter while also paying critical attention to other areas of grave concern as mentioned.