KINGSTON, Jamaica – Media organizations are pushing parliament to overhaul Jamaica's libel law, complaining that the difficulty and cost of fighting off lawsuits, coupled with the risk of huge judgments, are stifling the press and harming freedom of expression.
In editorials, phone calls to lawmakers and even speeches before Parliament, editors and broadcasters are increasingly demanding change from a government that has pledged to review the dated law, but so far failed to take significant action.
They argue that high litigation fees mean they often cannot afford to defend themselves in libel cases and are forced to settle. Some say they squash potentially contentious stories because of the risk they could be sued and hit with outsize damages.
"Essentially, media houses are like winning lottery tickets to some persons who file libel suits, and costs to defend cases can expose any media house to bankruptcy," said Jenni Campbell, head of the island's press association and managing editor of The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper.
"The fear of the defamation law and fines ensure that some corrupt practices that may not necessarily leave a trail of hard evidence remain unexposed," she said from the newsroom of the Gleaner, the Caribbean's oldest daily still in print.
Based on 17th-century law from Britain, Jamaica's former colonial ruler, Jamaica's libel statute places the burden of proof on the defendant — unlike in the United States, where the person claiming libel must prove that a report was both false and published with malicious intent.
It's easier to sue successfully for libel under a system like Jamaica's, and damages awarded by juries on the island are surprisingly hefty compared to judgments in the United Kingdom, said British media lawyer Mark Stephens, who recently addressed a parliamentary committee on the need for reform.
"Through the years, it has struck me rather starkly that the awards from the Jamaica Court of Appeal were higher than the awards in the English Court of Appeal. It must act as a chilling effect," Stephens said.
In one high-profile case, the Gleaner was ordered to pay $1 million to a former tourism minister and radio host for publishing a story in 1987 that claimed he may have accepted a bribe. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to about $400,000 — still a large sum in a nation with a per capita GDP of $8,400.
The managing editor of the Sunday Herald, a small paper known for investigative journalism, said it has abandoned stories such as an "ironclad" report on political favors being doled out by one mayor due to fear of litigation.
"The current system allows public officials to get away with murder," Desmond Richards said.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding has pledged to review the statute, saying it may be shielding "scoundrels" and warning that public officials must be prepared to meet a higher standard of transparency when the law is eventually amended.
"We must be prepared to be questioned about our lifestyles and about our bank accounts and about our behavior and about what we did, where we did, and why we did," Golding was quoted as saying last year while at a meeting of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union.
And in 2008, a government-formed committee submitted a report that outlined various options for modernizing the libel law.
But critics in Jamaican media say the report has grown stale as it gets reviewed by various committees, and they are not optimistic about the prospects for significant change anytime soon.
Golding's information minister, Daryl Vaz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on where libel reform efforts stand.
For starters, media leaders want to abolish criminal libel and reverse the burden of proof so that it falls to the plaintiffs. They also want to establish a statute of limitations for libel and do away with a "multiple publication rule" that currently lets people sue over every instance in which a story is published or downloaded, repeating the same claims each time.
Lord Anthony Gifford, one of Jamaica's leading defense attorneys, welcomed a review and said he was open to some changes — judges, not juries, should determine damages, he said. But in a nation of just 2.9 million people, he added, existing libel law protects people from having their names dragged through the mud by irresponsible journalism.
"In a small society like Jamaica's, a false statement about someone can be devastating," Gifford said. "When people are ostracized, they are really and truly cut off."