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Libel reform bill passed

By Andre Bagoo Sunday, January 26 2014

LEGISLATION to abolish one of the criminal defamatory libel offences was on Friday night passed by simple majority in the House of Representatives.

The Libel and Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2013 now heads to the Senate.

In wrapping up debate of the legislation, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said the one-page bill repealed a criminal offence which held that any publication of defamatory material — even if inadvertently published — would draw a term of one year’s imprisonment and a fine.

The Opposition MP s voted against the bill at all its stages, from passage of individual clauses during committee stage, to reporting to the House and then for the final vote for passage. A division was not called for.

Ramlogan noted the bill criminalises anyone who, “Negligently or inadvertently defames you” and acted as a form of intimidation against the free press. He queried why the Opposition was against decriminalisation.

“That person will be able to go to jail for a year because of that and they see nothing wrong with that,” he said.

However, the Attorney General also noted the repeal was not a complete abolition of the criminal offence of defamation as the offence of malaciously defaming someone remained intact through Section 8 of the Libel and Defamation Act. However, he said for criminal liability to apply, the person must have acting, “knowing the same to be false, and those are the operating words.”

Ramlogan said the Opposition had proposed amendments to the two-clause bill but instead of sharing them with the Government opted to keep them secret.

“This is the first time that the Opposition is proposing an amendment but they are keeping it secret,” he said. Ramlogan said even when the free press is writing wrong things, the State must be wary of shutting down freedom of expression.

“They have written a lot of things that are completely false but there must be a certain measure of elasticity,” he argued. “That is why we must give them our support. You can have internal regulation.”

Earlier in the debate, Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner proposed to the Government the prioritisation of complete abolition of defamation. He suggested laws be brought banning forms of media harrassment such as:

intimidation; police raids; boycotts and legal threats.

“To the media, I ask them to bring the issue of defamation to the fore,” said Warner.

PNM MP Amery Browne questioned why the Government was decriminalizing inadvertent libel, stating the law has not been applied. He said the law also protects journalists who may themselves be subject to libel.

Ramlogan and PNM Point Fortin MP Paula Gopee-Scoon sparred over her record, from when she was Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the media.

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