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Disproportionate charges against journalists in Barbados must be dropped

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) calls on the police authorities of Barbados to drop criminal charges brought against executives of the daily newspaper The Nation – Publisher, Vivian-Anne Gittens, Editor-in-chief, Roy Morris, and News Editor, Sanka Price, accused of alleged violation of the Protection of Children Act.

The IAPA also questioned the detention of the journalists, calling it a disproportionate action that carries with it a negative precedent for the climate of press freedom in the English-speaking Caribbean.

The detention and accusation had its origin in the publication on October 26 of a photo from a Facebook video of two 14-year-old students having sex in a classroom. The photo, captured from the video taken on a mobile phone, accompanied an article by Price on sexual activities at a rural school.

IAPA President Elizabeth Ballantine declared, “Without wishing to interfere in the local laws and justice system we regarded the arrest of the journalists and subsequent criminal charges brought against them to be totally disproportionate, turning it into an act of aggravated intimidation of the right and duty of a media outlet to report about everything, above all what is happening the country.”

Ballantine, together with the chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, sent a letter to Royal Barbados Police Force Assistant Commissioner Lionel M. Thompson in which it is requested that “beyond the letter of the law there be an interpretation of its spirit, considering that press freedom at times requires the media to assume the responsibility of challenging laws in order to place on the public agenda issues that while they may not be agreeable are essential to give rise to dialogue and solutions to social problems.”

The three journalists were held for several hours on November 14 and then released on bail. They were charged under the Protection of Children Act and face the possibility of five years in prison if found guilty of the offense. They are due to reappear in court on March 11, 2014.

Their letter calls for “withdrawal of the charges,” as the IAPA considers that “the consequences of this accusation could give rise to a negative precedent for the local and Caribbean press in general and the applicability of freedom of the press.”

The IAPA will take this matter, and the restrictions of criminal laws on the practice of journalism, to its next Midyear Meeting, to be held in Barbados April 4-7, 2014. In addition, it will include the issue on the agenda of the meeting of the Press Freedom Organizations Coordinating Committee – a body made up of international institutions that watch over this right – to be held in London in late January.

Initially the report – now removed from the newspaper's Web site – gave rise to public questioning on the lack of monitoring of the students and rules prohibiting the use of mobile phones in schools. Other readers criticized the publication of the pictures of the children, regarding it as obscene and violating young people's rights.

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