Dominica's Labour Party may be martyrizing Linton
Journalism in Dominica and the Caribbean as well, will not be the same even after the current battle between Lennox Linton, the Leader of the Opposition United Workers Party (UWP), and chartered accountant Kieron Pinard-Byrne is finally over.
In the short term this landmark case is likely to cost supporters of the UWP more than two hundred thousand dollars. That's a lot of money in any currency. Undoubtedly this will end up being one of the most expensive libel cases in the history of the Eastern Caribbean.
For practicing journalists who operate every day under the threat of libel over their heads, that level of cost congers nightmares of complete bankruptcy and ruin. Who then can blame reporters and journalists for sitting back and watching the rats laughing gleefully as they run away with the cheese, in broad daylight?
And as we write Linton again faces the wrath of lawyers of the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP) who accuse him of calling each and all of them rapists. Based on the vile nature of these cases, their viciousness and political divisiveness one can conclude that the long term objective of the DLP is to silence Linton and the UWP with the effective axe of the libel laws. Another objective may be to bankrupt Linton out of the House of Assembly.
But to the observant bystander that DLP strategy seems to be backfiring given the eagerness with which supporters of the UWP have been rallying to pay Linton's debt to Pinard-Byrne. It appears to UWP supports and to some independent persons as well, that the DLP is actively persecuting Linton through libel suits. The end result, it seems, is the strengthening of Linton's position within the UWP rather than weakening him; Linton supporters say their leader is actively fighting injustices of the Dominican society on their behalf and though he will be made to pay, he will not go down alone. That we believe is not the effect that the DLP wants. What we see then is the beginning of the formation of a martyr.
If indeed the DLP has been using the court to crucify the opposition we believe it is fair to say that this is a rather sinister use of the law, specifically the use of our archaic libel laws.
But while the debate on the merits and demerits of Privy Council's pronouncements against Linton continues Dominicans are missing a golden opportunity to begin discussion on one of the most fundamental issues affecting the practice of journalism in the Caribbean. That is the urgent need for the modernisation of the country's libel laws. We are of the view that based on Judge Brian Cottle's judgment alone, these laws are obviously incompatible with the practice of press freedom in any modern democratic society. We said this earlier and we think it is worth repeating.
As far as the process of reform of libel laws is concerned Jamaica is ahead of the rest of the Caribbean. Although the laws in that CARICOM state is yet to be affected, the government of former Prime Minister Bruce Golding had, at least, begun discussion on the implications of reform. Eight years ago, in 2008, Golding appointed a 12- member committee to examine the country's libel laws and to recommend changes to the Jamaican parliament. That body continued debate in 2011 on the committee's recommendation. When he appointed the committee, Golding felt then that libel and slander laws had to be reviewed to ensure these laws would not be used as a fire-wall to protect wrongdoers.
His fears were not unfounded. According to Golding there are people who deserve not only to be exposed but to be put behind bars who are able to hold on to the current libel laws, using it as a shield and say: "Touch me if you think you're bad" and, Golding added: "That needs to be broken down."
But breaking down laws that have existed for centuries is understandably a slow and tortuous exercise. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear that the existing libel laws stifle investigative journalism. The Linton case clearly illustrates that fact. These laws hamper inquisitive reporters in their quest to unmask corruption, malfeasance, graft and kickbacks. Most journalists would argue that in any jurisdiction in the Caribbean there are numerous circumstances which require investigation and analysis that is clearly in the public interest but cannot be publicized without breaching the law. Most editors err on the side of caution by sweeping potentially libelous matters under the carpet.
Responding to a call for reform, media practitioners in the Caribbean say they are firmly of the view that lawmakers in the Caribbean need to examine with a view to adopt the American system of jurisprudence as far as the relationship between public figures and the press is concerned.
They explain that libel laws in the US impose a stronger burden of proof on the plaintiff than exist in the Caribbean, since the plaintiff has the burden to prove the untruth of the alleged libel statement and to prove he was injured by the libel.
In support of that argument, Jamaican journalists in particular, point to that landmark case, the New York Times vs. Sullivan.
But public officials often contend that the Sullivan approach means that the media and the public are free to defame public officials. The rationale behind the decision of the judge in the New York Times vs. Sullivan case is that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on Government and public officials.
Of course, freedom of the press does not give journalists the unfettered right to defame persons and to publish deliberate falsehoods. We agree wholeheartedly with Judge Cottle that with the tremendous power that the press wields come significant responsibility. But we continue to stress that in the absence of the freedom to openly criticise government bodies and officials, what is left is a breeding ground for corruption facilitated by libel and slander laws. What has happened, and is happening, to Linton is frightening to even the most circumspect journalist among us.