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KINGSTON — The Senate on April 8 approved a report from a Joint Select Committee of Parliament on the review of Jamaica's libel laws.

The contents of the report will now go to the Chief Parliamentary Counsel for the Bill to be prepared, which will then be signed off on by Cabinet.

Minister of State for Finance and the Public Service, Senator Hon. Arthur Williams, said the recommendations in the report amount to a major modernisation of the country’s defamation laws.

“I suggest now that we should proceed with responsible journalism being the point at which a fair balance is held between freedom of expression and matters of public concern and the reputation of individuals,” Senator Williams said.

Justice Minister and Attorney General, Senator Hon. Dorothy Lightbourne, said that the changes in the law will be of some benefit to media organisations that have lobbied for changes for year.

“I have to caution them however, that in spite of their power, not to be careless or malicious in their coverage of stories, but check and recheck and ensure that people’s lives are not destroyed by spurious and unfounded allegations,” she implored.

In welcoming the recommendations, Opposition Senator, Sandrea Falconer, who was a television journalist for many years, said that the existing defamation laws have affected the mass media and have restricted how media houses operate and the public is often short changed because the risks of libel suits are too great.

“As media managers, we had to balance the public interest and the right to know with the protection of the organisation. We had to do risk analysis and often times, the bottom line and the protection of the station against expensive law suits were deciding factors. The result of this has been a tremendous inhibition of free speech and reporting the truth,” she stated.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator Hon. Marlene Malahoo Forte, also supported the report of the joint select committee.

She stated that the recommendations were “worthy of commendation, and I think they are progressive and I look forward to the draft law in due course."

Prime Minister, the Hon. Bruce Golding, in 2007, appointed a committee, chaired by Justice Hugh Small, to review Jamaica’s libel and slander laws and recommend changes as may be necessary to ensure transparency and accountability.

The Parliamentary group has been perusing the recommendations of the12-member committee since 2009.  

Among the recommendations in the Small report that the committee has upheld are: for the abolition of the distinction between slander and libel; and that a single civil action of defamatory publication that requires no proof of special damages be established.

 

By LATONYA LINTON, JIS Reporter