The Senate, on July 5, commenced debate on a Bill entitled: ‘An Act to Repeal the Defamation Act and Libel and Slander Act’, also known as the Defamation Bill, during its sitting at Gordon House, downtown Kingston.
The Bill, which was piloted by Justice Minister, Senator the Hon. Mark Golding, seeks to amend Jamaica’s defamation laws to address inadequacies identified in the current libel law by implementing, with accompanying revisions where considered, recommendations made in the Report of the Joint Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament, which deliberated the matter.
It also seeks to further promote speedy and non-litigious methods of resolving disputes.
These recommendations are based on proposals made by a committee, chaired by retired High Court Judge, Hon. Justice Ronald Hugh Small, which reviewed the existing laws.
In his remarks, Senator Golding informed that the Small Committee submitted its recommendations to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament appointed to consider the former’s report, submitted in 2008, and to report to Parliament.
He pointed out that in developing its report, the Parliamentary Committee had the benefit of opinions and submissions from the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ), Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), and an expert in defamation law from the United Kingdom (UK).
The Minister explained that the expert was invited to examine the Small Committee’s report and present his views and recommendations to the Joint Select Committee.
“Although not all of the recommendations of the Small Committee were accepted by the Joint Select Committee, there was general consensus that Jamaica’s defamation law was in need of updating and modernization,” he informed.
Senator Golding said the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations were approved by Cabinet, which authorized the issuing of drafting instructions to produce the Defamation Bill.
“The Bill (went) through a process of further review and refinement until the present administration was satisfied that it was ready to come to Parliament,” Senator Golding said, pointing out that it was tabled in the House in Representatives in March.
Also debating the Bill were Minister with responsibility for Information, Senator the Hon. Sandrea Falconer; Leader of Opposition Business, Senator Arthur Williams, and Senator Alexander Williams.
In her contribution, Senator Falconer, a former practising journalist, welcomed the move to legislate changes, noting that members of the local media fraternity have, “for a number of years”, lobbied for revisions to the defamation and libel laws to enable them to “more effectively” carry out their duties as the society’s “democratic watchdogs.”
“Let us have no equivocation about the importance of the media in a liberal democracy such as ours. This role is absolutely crucial, and anything which strengthens this role, as this Bill seeks to do, represents progress and should be hailed. This Defamation Act, 2013, represents an important step in our democratic journey” she posited.
One of the Bill’s notable provisions, highlighted by Senator Falconer, is the abolition of criminal libel, which she contended sends an “important signal” of the high regard in which freedom of speech is held in Jamaica. This, she argued, “puts Jamaica in line with modern jurisdictions which have long abolished criminal libel.”
Additionally, she said it seeks to abolish the distinction between libel and slander, and establish a single “cause of action” known as defamation.
Another significant provision, the Minister further stated, is the proposed change in the assessment of damages awarded, from juries to the sole discretion of a judge.
“Awards by juries have been a sore and vexing point among media owners and media practitioners, especially in light of some hefty awards which have been made locally. It has often been noted that some of the awards made by our courts have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and Press freedom, for those are huge awards which could wipe out a number of media houses. They could also serve to intimidate pursuers of truth in the media,” the Minister said.
Senator Falconer said media owners and journalists have generally “expressed a preference” for having a judge assess damages in all circumstances. “So, this change in the law is something which has been strongly supported by the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ),” she added.
Describing the Bill as a “significant plank” in Jamaica’s democracy, Senator Falconer declared that, “I support it wholeheartedly.”
In his contribution, Senator Arthur Williams, in voicing “full support” for the Bill, said it represents “significant progress” in reforming and modernizing Jamaica’s defamation laws.
Senator Alexander Williams, in his remarks, lauded the efforts of all the persons who contributed to the Bill’s development, while welcoming the proposed amendments.
The debate is slated to continue at the Senate’s next sitting, scheduled for July 12.
By Douglas Mcintosh, JIS Reporter