Criminal libel still a threat in Britain’s old colonies

– by Savea Sano Malifa  /

Samoa Observer editor Savea Sano Malifa has been in Trinidad and Tobago for the International Press Institute World Congress.

APIA (Samoa Observer): One of the prickly issues that raised much concern at the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress at the Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago, on 23-26 June, was the frightening law called criminal libel.

Presented at the congress under the oddly familiar banner, “Colonial legacies: Criminal defamation in the Caribbean,” criminal libel is a scary reminder that once upon a time, Britain annexed a vast area of the planet now known as the Third World and lorded over the countries there as its primitive colonies.

And as it was doing so it imposed some rather oppressive laws, one of which was the law of criminal libel, with a prime purpose to shut away behind bars trouble-makers accused of inciting rebellion and treason.

Still a threat
Now the problem is that even though practically all those colonies – they make up most of Africa, a good part of South America, all of the Caribbean and a huge chunk of Asia and the South Pacific – have become politically independent with sets of laws of their own, Britain’s law of criminal libel is still there in their law books.

And what’s even worse is that this time, since rebellion is no longer posing a threat to governments in these parts of the world, political leaders are using this law to silence crusading editors and journalists by putting them in jail.

And so far it is working. As editors and journalists are finding themselves working in fear of the law of criminal libel, they are also realising how awfully cruel it might have been living in these small island nations during Britain’s reign of oppression.

They feel this way since the law of criminal libel they’ve inherited would have been so viciously sinister so that the British should have taken it with them when they left, and that since that did not happen, all governments that followed in these small countries should have scrapped it a long time ago.

We say this law is sinister since from the cases we have been told so far, the only conceivable crime the editors against whom it had been used was their stubborn refusal – despite threats to kill made against them and members of their families – to desist from exposing acts of bureaucratic corruption [that had] been perpetrated within their countries that were clearly being condoned by their governments.

In other words, in these far-flung postcolonial nations today, the British law of criminal libel is still being used by certain governments to thwart the media’s role of promoting freedom of expression and the public’s right to know, by threatening to jail editors who refuse to follow the status quo.

Which is why no matter how hard many of these countries are struggling to become self-sufficient and be in control of their destinies, they are doomed to fail. Since by insisting on suppressing press freedom so that the public is prevented from being well informed, their governments are free to ignore transparency and accountability so that corruption becomes the festering wound infecting the very hearts of their societies.

Push to remove law
At the IPI World Congress, contingents from the Caribbean were clearly united in their quest for the law of criminal libel to be removed from their countries’ law books.

“Our ardent hope,” they said, “is that one of the legacies of this World Congress itself, will be the repeal of the criminal defamation law under which journalists and publishers can be jailed if convicted on charges of defamation.”

They pointed out that although it is rarely used, “this legislation remains the big stick on the law books, available for deployment against any journalist or media house on allegations of defamation.

“We wish to record our appreciation to the IPI for taking up the cause of Caribbean press freedom against this law.”

And as a result of IPI’s intervention, it now appears that the governments of the Caribbean – made up of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago – are also amenable to the idea of repealing this law.

It was revealed that Jamaica’s Minister of Justice, Mark Golding, had informed that the bill to repeal this law was on his desk, and that it should be tabled before the end of the year. In Barbados, the Prime Minister has promised to reconsider the law, the Caribbean delegation told the IPI Congress.

However, in the Dominican Republic where “the first criminal defamation case (in that country) is underway,” details were not available for the IPI Congress.

As for Trinidad and Tobago where the law of criminal libel was described as “this antiquated and obnoxious piece of legislation,” the Publishers and Broadcasters Association, the Media Association and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, have made a joint request to their government to repeal it.

“We are now awaiting a government response,” they told the IPI Congress.

Samoan precedent
And that brings us home to our little paradise, Samoa, the so-called Cradle of Polynesia. So what do we know of the British law called criminal libel? Well, quite a bit.

Back in June 1977 it was used by the late Prime Minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana, in an attempt to jail the editor of the Samoa Observer – that is the writer by the way – for publishing a letter to the editor he apparently found offensive.

And now having said that, the writer knows there is at least one person who will raise his eyebrows, sigh mournfully, as he’s whimpering: “Well now? When can we forgive and forget?”

Not ever, the writer feels. Until the cruel law of criminal libel is repealed and thrown out of this country’s law books, so that future generations would not have to suffer the horror of fear by being victimised by it.

That’s when. Because on that day when the legal documents confirming the late PM’s criminal defamation lawsuit showed up, the writer was already preparing for a heart attack.

When he saw for sure the maximum penalty if he was convicted was six months in jail, he was ready to say goodbye to life. He said at that point his nightmare began anew.

There is consolation though that a bill to repeal this law has been prepared, and it would be tabled in Parliament sometime soon, according to the Samoa Law Society.

Now that’s something to look forward to. And lastly, there is also the Publishers and Printers Act 1992 which is just as scary, if not more so. Since its aim is to silence “sources” of information so as to prevent them from revealing what they know is of public interest, this law is evil.

Call to repeal
It is clearly a decree aimed at frightening decent-thinking members of the public into keeping quiet about what they know, or be punished. That way those invaluable “sources” of information dry up, the public is ill-informed, the free flow of information is in disarray, and society is dragged to the dregs by corruption.

So that in brief, the laws of Criminal Libel and Publishers and Printers Act are enemies of freedom of expression and the Samoan public’s right to know, so that they have no right being called laws of Samoa. Which follows that both laws have got to be repealed. And Prime Minister Tuilaepa Saielele Malielegaoi, who inherited them, now has the chance to right an unforgivable wrong.

He is in a position where he can effectively influence the removal of these insufferable laws from continuing to undermine Samoa’s once inalienable freedom.

He will not regret it. Since such a triumph would be the jewel of all the achievements he has accomplished with his country’s future well being in mind.

Have a peaceful Week Samoa, God bless.