Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

CARIBBEAN: Legal Threats Surpass Physical Risks for Journalists

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Jun 27 2011 (IPS) - Caribbean journalists meeting here last weekend celebrated the news that not a single colleague was killed during the first six months of this year.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for other countries in the Americas, according to the Austria-based International Press Institute, with at least 14 journalists killed so far, “depressing hopes that total deaths in 2011 would drop significantly from the highs of 31 and 28 seen respectively last year and in 2009”.

In the wider Caribbean, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have been the most dangerous countries for journalists recently, IPI reported.

Bethel McKenzie, IPI’s director, who was in Trinidad to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), told a news conference that “press freedom issues in the Caribbean are sometimes obscured by a focus on other parts of the world in which journalists are killed in higher numbers.

“It is important to underscore that there are very real press freedom concerns in the Caribbean, notably the widespread prevalence of criminal defamation laws, which can fuel self-censorship, and which must be abolished,” she added. “We intend to launch a campaign against criminal defamation, not only in Europe but in the Caribbean.

“There is no other profession where you go to jail for doing your job, for getting up, going to work and reporting the facts, at least not in the numbers that journalists are going to jail and being abused and assaulted around the world.”

ACM president Wesley Gibbings said many criminal defamation laws in the Caribbean were not dormant and have been used in countries like Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda.

However, he noted that in Jamaica, a report by a government-appointed commission last year recommended dropping the country’s law of criminal defamation and all other pieces of legislation which had the effects of criminalising speech and expression.

“That report has since been accepted by the Parliament of Jamaica and a few weeks ago it was announced that the legislature will soon be entertaining a bill that would seek to correct the anomalies recognised by the commission,” Gibbings said.

Meanwhile, journalists in the Dominican Republic have faced a wave of aggression, with the country’s Journalism Guild recording more than 30 incidents against media workers so far this year.

The press freedom situation also remained dire in Haiti. While Cuba has released the last of 29 journalists detained during the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown, it has continued “to foster a repressive media environment”, IPI said.

IPI, which is partnering with the ACM to host its 2012 World Congress and 61st General Assembly here, said that self-censorship based on fear of violent reprisal by criminal gangs or other powerful interests also continued to be a problem in many parts of the region.

But the Austria-based media group said it was pleased in February when authorities in the Dominican Republic brought criminal charges against the police who allegedly plotted to murder lawyer and television host Jordi Veras last year. Veras survived an ambush on Jun. 2, 2010 outside the television studios in Santiago where he worked.

However, IPI condemned the criminal prosecution of television presenter Jose Agustin Silvestre de los Santos, who faces charges for allegedly insulting and defaming prosecutor Jose Polanco Ramirez by linking him to drug traffickers.

According to IPI, the journalist reportedly suffered a beating by security guards and shots fired at his house after his statements against the prosecutor.

“Ironically, the case came as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo,” the group noted.

In Haiti, which is recovering from a devastating earthquake in January last year that killed an estimated 300,000 people, an arson attack in April destroyed the offices and equipment of a community radio station, leaving the northeastern city of Caricel without a radio station.

“The attack was attributed to armed supporters of a legislative candidate,” said IPI, adding that earlier that month, the director- general of the state-owned Television National d’Haiti (TNH), Pradel Henriquez, filed a criminal defamation action against three TNH journalists “who said they were fired for bring critical of then- President elect Michel Martelly”.

Surveying the situation in the rest of the Americas, IPI said that the number of deaths in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia “made the region the second most dangerous place for journalists outside of the Middle East and North Africa, which have experienced a spike in killings owing to recent upheaval”.

It said that Mexico continues to be “one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with four murdered so far this year in attacks attributed to nacro-trafficking.

“Only Iraq, with seven deaths, and Libya, with five, have seen more killings,” said IPI, adding that North American journalists faced a significantly lower threat of violence, but that some incidents did emerge, such as the death threat against a California journalist covering a trial in the 2007 murder of Oakland Post reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey.

“Canada has also been the subject of calls for a comprehensive public inquiry into the arrests of and alleged assaults against journalists by police at the G20 Summit in Toronto last June,” IPI said.

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