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Archaic defamation laws threaten Caribbean media

Defamation laws have been used more in the Caribbean and Latin America than other parts of the world. Some countries are now working to overturn the laws.

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent / October 22, 2012



Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Dominican radio commentator Melton Pineda’s mouth rankled politicians frequently enough over the years to earn him the nickname “The Bazooka.” This month, after he was prosecuted under the country’s archaic defamation laws, it also earned him three months in prison.

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A court found that Mr. Pineda slandered a politically connected former police spokesman when he accused him of ties to the criminal world. In the United States, Pineda could have been forced to pay damages to his victim under a civil suit.

But the Dominican Republic, like most of the Caribbean and Latin America, considers defamation a criminal matter. Pineda’s penalty was more than $125,000 and a sentence in prison.

Laws that criminalize defamation, relics of colonialism on the books in countries throughout the world but rarely used by most, present one of the biggest threats to the media in the Caribbean, journalists and press freedom groups say. Now, governments in the region are pledging to work to decriminalize defamation. Their efforts are supported by an international press freedom organization that sees the Caribbean as a proving ground for a wider campaign to do away with the laws.

“It’s like a dark cloud that’s always hanging over you,” says Rawle Titus, a journalist and president of the Media Workers Association of Grenada, which repealed its defamation laws in July as part of an overhaul of its criminal code. “You have to be cautious about what you write and say because you know these laws exist.”

'It is not forgotten'

In the past 15 years, defamation laws have been invoked “more in the Caribbean and Latin America and less in other parts of the world,” says Scott Griffen, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“These laws are clearly being used to silence journalism,” Mr. Griffen says.

Mr. Pineda’s case garnered wide attention in the Dominican Republic, but cases have also been brought in Grenada, and Antigua and Barbuda in recent years. One of the better known cases internationally took place in Ecuador in 2011 when President Rafael Correa used criminal libel laws against three newspaper executives and a columnist. They were sentenced to three years in prison each and a multi-million dollar fine.

President Correa ultimately pardoned the journalists in a televised address that included the warning, “there is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten.”

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