Over 50 Caribbean media workers - from the print and broadcast media - editors, publishers and academics gathered in Barbados last Tuesday and Wednesday to examine 'Freedom of the Press and Human Development in the Caribbean'.
In the lively, sometimes heated, discussions that took place on Wednesday, 'World Press Freedom Day', journalists looked at their roles with regard to issues such as poverty, development and empowerment of the Caribbean citizenry. The very first presentation at the conference which was organised and sponsored by UNESCO, Mona School of Business at UWI, Caribbean Media Corporation, Caribbean Broadcasting Union and the Caribbean News Agency Ltd dealt with defamation law and the media, a critical issue particularly in the Caribbean. Since ignorance of the law is no excuse, journalists need to familiarise themselves with the law as it relates to defamation or to seek legal advice prior to printing/broadcasting reports which might be deemed defamatory. Win or lose, libel and slander suits are costly.
This has become even more imperative given the coming into being of the free movement of skills component of the Caricom Single Market. Journalists are among the classes of workers already cleared for free movement within Caricom. Those who choose to move in this direction should be aware that in some territories - Grenada for instance - journalists can be charged with criminal libel, which carries a prison term as penalty; as opposed to a civil suit which asks for damages. A case in point, which was quoted, was George Worme and Grenada Today vs the Commissioner of Police, which was taken to the Privy Council in 2004. However, the overwhelming consensus of the conference was that such laws are archaic and should be repealed.
During the course of a moderated discussion on defamation, an editor/publisher raised a current issue. One of his reporters was covering a court case during which the judge excused the jury in order to hear certain arguments. He ruled almost instantaneously on the arguments, also in the absence of the jury. The judge did not ask the reporter to leave the courtroom, neither did he indicate that what had been argued and ruled on was not for public consumption.
As a result, the reporter wrote the story; it was published; a mistrial was declared and the editor was hauled before the court for contempt.
He protested vociferously that the court had given no directions to the reporter and that the media had a right to publicise information for public consumption.
However, he did not recognise, or chose not to, that his media house also had a responsibility not to seek or to appear to seek to influence the outcome of a trial. The editor ought to have been sensitive enough to recognise that the jury had been excused because the judge did not want their ultimate decision to be influenced by what was being said.
Since the jury was not sequestered, then it was the media house's responsibility to ensure that that information was not communicated to the jury.
The journalist or the sub-editor should also have known the law.
One would hope that the lesson learned here would serve to remind journalists that while they have a right to publish information that should be in the public domain, they also have a responsibility to do as much as they can to ensure that such information is neither harmful nor defamatory.