While Jamaican journalists were generally free to cover sensitive stories such as the country’s economic decline and its rising crime rate, there were widespread concerns that pending legislation could deter aggressive reporting.
For example, a new anticorruption bill introduced by the government of Prime Minister Percival Noel James Patterson would also restrict the ability of journalists to write about corruption. Under the proposed bill, journalists could be fined up to US$12,250 and/or sentenced to three years imprisonment for publishing information about an ongoing corruption investigation. Although the bill was modified after objections by the media (initially, the maximum fine was US$25,000 and the maximum prison sentence 10 years), most Jamaican journalists see the bill as a potential muzzle on the press. Senate debate on the bill was originally set for December but had not yet taken place at year’s end.
The legislature was also debating a new freedom of information act that was first proposed in 1995. Local journalists argued that the bill’s wide array of exemptions, including Cabinet memos and all documents that could “reasonably be expected to have a substantial effect on the ability of the government to manage the economy,” would nullify rather than expand access to government information. A new draft bill was expected in early 2000; meanwhile, the 1911 Official Secrets Act remained on the books.
Gleaner Company Ltd. continued to appeal a US$2.5 million libel verdict stemming from a 1987 Associated Press story that was picked up by two of its publications, the daily Gleaner and its afternoon tabloid The Star. The story contained allegations that former tourism minister Eric Anthony Abrahams had accepted bribes. A panel of three appellate judges began hearing the case; both sides were expected to conclude their arguments in early 2000.
Local journalists reported that Jamaica’s stringent libel laws prompt a certain degree of self-censorship. Although defamation is generally treated as a civil matter, the Libel and Slander Act of 1961 imposes prison terms of up to three years.