Media organizations in the former British colony complained for years that the difficulty and cost of fighting lawsuits, along with the risk of punishing judgments, stifled the press and freedom of expression. Some said they squashed potentially contentious stories over the years because of the risk of being sued.
But after years of debate, both houses of Parliament have passed legislation amending a libel and slander law authorized by the island in 1851 and a defamation act passed in 1961. Attorney General Patrick Atkinson said in a Wednesday statement that the distinction between libel and slander will soon be abolished once the bill is signed into law.
The Press Association of Jamaica said amendments include the removal of a provision under which people could be charged with criminal libel for making "outrageous" comments.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute said Jamaica is now the first independent Caribbean nation to clear its books of criminal defamation laws. It said Grenada abolished criminal libel last year but still has laws criminalizing seditious libel. Trinidad & Tobago and the Dominican Republic are considering bills that would partially decriminalize libel, the institute said.
"We urge regional countries to follow Jamaica's courageous example," Institute Director Alison Bethel said in a Wednesday statement.
The parliamentary overhaul also adds a "wire service defense" to the defamation law that says local media organizations can use reports from reputable sources without first checking for accuracy.
Jamaican judges, not juries, will now determine damages for media organizations found guilty of publishing defamatory information. The press association said this "will result in more reasonable fines which will not threaten the existence of media houses."
Juries sometimes awarded hefty damages under the old libel statute. In one high-profile case, the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper was ordered to pay $1 million to a former tourism minister and radio host for publishing a story in 1987 that said he might have accepted a bribe. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to about $400,000—still a big sum in Jamaica.
"This is an important step in increasing freedom of expression and by extension press freedom in Jamaica," said Jenni Campbell, president of the press association and managing editor of the Gleaner, the Caribbean's oldest daily still in print.
The press association will keep pushing for a change to make it harder for public figures to claim defamation. Campbell said that would boost the ability of reporters to bring public corruption to light.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd