Thursday, 2 May 2013

Baby Steps to Liberty

The announcement that Trinidad and Tobago is moving to repeal some aspects of the country’s Libel and Defamation Act is good news to anyone with an interest in press freedom and freedom of expression. The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration was proud enough of the move to have the proceedings broadcast live on state radio and television and the story led the evening news on state-owned Caribbean New Media Group (CTV).

As International Press Institute (IPI) Executive Director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie, remarked at the joint press conference to make the announcement the development was “significant” and should not be underestimated in value. A similar sentiment came from Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) President, Kiran Maharaj.

I agree that the development is important because it signals the willingness of the government of Trinidad and Tobago to pay attention to what should be an important area of concern to everyone. It is not that there have been any recent instances where these particular provisions of the Act have been applied, but that their very existence can have a chilling effect on the freedom to publish.

It is, however, a “baby” step – not a wobbly, uncertain move forward by any means, but a small, deliberate step along a rather long road. The left foot is now planted on the ground, now for the right, and then again and again.

For example, Section 9 of the Act which addresses the issue of “malicious” publication of defamatory content is to be deleted. But this leaves Section 8 which punishes malicious content that is deemed by a court to be knowingly false. In the end, this section too must go. So must the concept of seditious libel expressed in the country’s Seditious and Undesireable Publications Act and something called “blasphemous libel” under the Criminal Offences Act.

More than that, a great deal of work needs to be done to create conditions that do not lead to a level of self-censorship which, those who are honest about it would concede, is pervasive. As I have said at more than one fora, journalists are rarely kidnapped, injured or killed in the Caribbean but many of their stories die. Stories are “killed” by the chilling effect of draconian legal sanction and by small, closed communities, advertisers and publishers who either do not wish to offend or are concerned about the protection of people and interests with which they are associated.

At press conference announcing
amendments with (from left) Alison
Bethel-McKenzie, IPI; Kiran Maharaj,
TTPBA, T&T Prime Minister
Kamla Persad-Bissessar
Historical antecedents and trials along the way have also left these small former British colonies in the West Indies handsomely clad in authoritarian coveralls. The instinct to resort to the draconian is quick. There is, everywhere, the charge of “too much” freedom and liberty and the relativist assertion that perhaps we are all too small and underdeveloped for the truth to always be recognised and told.

This is not an easy one. It is also not the duty of the TTPBA or the Media Association or the ACM alone. It is instructive that the legal analysis of this issue was undertaken not by the Law Association or any conscientious human rights group (none exists), but by the Vienna-based IPI.

What is required to make any further progress on this issue, as well, is an enlightened citizenry motivated by a vision of freedom and liberty and a commitment to have all ideas and expression contend. Our society, as a whole, has also been taking nothing more than baby steps in such a direction.