As one International Press Institute (IPI) official so ruefully laments: – “…We find it particularly appalling that an island nation as vibrant as the Bahamas, which so fiercely cherishes independence and maintains close ties to the United States and the United Nations, condones the jailing of journalists and disregards the people’s right to know…”
Like so very many others who work in and derive their living from media, we are ever mindful that we must either strive to keep up with changing times or perish utterly.
One of the more peculiar aspects of life in today’s so-called modern Bahamas has to do with the extent to which some of its laws, practices and mores are yet so heavily impregnated [and perhaps even infested] with relics of slavery and colonialism; thus laws against vagrancy, laws against ‘insulting’ the Queen and other quaint matters such as laws extant that seek to criminalize obeah.
There are those other practices that would stifle press freedom in a day and in an age where the propagation of information has not only gone world-wide, but which on occasion, goes viral.
Now that this information genie is out of the bottle, nothing can be done as regards returning to that era when TOP SECRET could be taken to also mean for SOME EYES ONLY. In a sense, the same principle applies to how we – as a nation – treat with changing trends in the wider world.
This is precisely why we say it loud and say it clear that we are in the fullest of agreement with the International Press Institute when it argues in a letter to Prime Minister the Right Hon. Perry Gladstone Christie that they find it appalling that criminal defamation still exists in the Bahamas, and that they have also asked him to bring the nation’s media-related laws in line with international standards.
As things now stand, journalists in the Bahamas can be jailed for what they write or say.
This is appalling! Indeed, we are also reminded [from the very innards of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights] that: – “… Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers…”
In this regard, IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie indicated, “Our position, which is supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is that criminal libel laws are antiquated and risk being misused to punish investigative journalism and chill critical opinion. Their existence promotes self-censorship on matters of public interest.” In addition, press freedom – in its most pristine manifestation- implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state. Its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.
This is precisely what we want and need in today’s so-called ‘modern’ Bahamas.
Put simply, we do agree with Mrs. McKenzie when she insists that all defamation, slander, libel and insult allegations should be handled by civil, not criminal courts. Evidently, if media is to do the job that it has been called to perform as regards the maintenance and deepening of democracy, it follows that every obstacle that now impedes it in pursuit of its purpose should be removed.
At its 2012 World Congress in Trinidad, IPI members approved the “Declaration of Port of Spain” which calls for the abolition of criminal defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean, in support of a strong and independent media.
More to the point, the Institute is of the view that “…no journalist should face criminal charges for what he or she has written or broadcast unless that information incites violence, which in most countries is a criminal offence.”
Under the Bahamas Penal Code, individuals convicted of intentional libel face up to two years in prison. Seditious libel or libel with a seditious intent, including insulting the Queen, carries a prison sentence of up to three years for repeat offenders.
We would respectfully encourage the government to consider amending the Bahamian Penal Code to repeal criminal defamation.
This we recommend even as we take note of the fact that defamation is criminalized to some extent in all 16 independent countries considered to be culturally or geographically part of the Caribbean.
This is nothing short of a crying shame in a day and in a time such as this.