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Jamaican Senate passes bill to abolish criminal defamation

The Jamaican Senate on Friday 12 July 2013 unanimously passed a bill that would make the island nation the first in the Caribbean to abolish all forms of criminal defamation.

The bill (Defamation Act 2013) would replace both the Libel and Slander Act (1851) and the Defamation Act (1961), which regulate criminal and civil defamation, respectively. Currently, those found guilty of malicious libel face up to a year in prison; the potential punishment increases to two years when the content is 'known to be false.'

The International Press Institute (IPI) has visited Jamaica twice (in Dec. 2011 and June 2012) as part of its campaign to abolish criminal libel in the Caribbean. During these press freedom missions, IPI met with representatives of government and law enforcement agencies, journalists and civil society groups, and law and journalism faculties.

Last fall, IPI received a letter from the country's justice minister reiterating that passing the defamation bill was a priority for the government. IPI has also worked closely with the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ), both of which provided detailed input on the bill.

“We are thrilled that the Jamaican Senate has approved this important bill, and we urge the House of Representatives to follow in its footsteps,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, who joined both IPI press freedom missions to Jamaica, said. “While no piece of legislation is perfect, this measure, by abolishing criminal libel, will help ensure that Jamaican journalists are free to publish information in the public interest without fear.”

Currently, all 16 independent countries in the Caribbean maintain some form of criminal defamation law, including seditious libel or desacato, according to IPI's independent research. Should the Defamation Bill 2013 pass the House of Representatives, Jamaica would become the first country in the Caribbean to have no such laws on the books.

“We hope that Jamaica stays on course to complete what would be a remarkable achievement,” Bethel McKenzie added. “We are awaiting the celebration.”

IPI has visited seven Caribbean countries since initiating its campaign in April 2012. Last July, Grenada became the first Caribbean country to abolish criminal libel, though seditious libel remains illegal. In June, following lobbying by IPI, the Dominican Republic Chamber of Deputies passed a reform to the country's criminal code that would remove all prison sentences for defamation. The bill is now under consideration by the country's Senate.

Next week, IPI will release a report on its April mission to the Caribbean, which encompassed Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Suriname, and the Dominican Republic.

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