IN A MAJOR VICTORY FOR THE JAMAICAN PRESS, the government agreed to amend a new law that made it a crime to report on certain government investigations.
The government of Prime Minister Percival Patterson first introduced the so-called Corruption (Prevention) Bill as part of its efforts to bring national legislation into compliance with the 1996 Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. Under the bill, journalists could be fined up to US$12,250 or jailed for up to three years, or both, for publishing information about the work of any state anti-corruption commission.
In September, the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ), a publishers group, organized a major seminar to focus public attention on the bill. In December, the Senate adopted the Corruption (Prevention) Bill without the offending clauses.
Earlier in the year, on February 22, the MAJ also organized a seminar on the proposed Freedom of Information Act. The bill, first presented in 1995, is extremely weak and contains numerous exemptions, allowing the government to withhold, for example, any document that could “reasonably be expected to have a substantial effect on the ability of the government to manage the economy.” Despite promises to reform the bill, no new draft was proposed in 2000. Meanwhile, the onerous Official Secrets Act of 1911 is still on the books.
On July 31, the Court of Appeals reduced a libel judgment against the Gleaner Company Limited to 35 million Jamaican dollars (US$800,000) from 80.7 million Jamaican dollars (US$1.8 million), according to the company’s legal advisor, Jennes Anderson. The case stemmed from reports in the daily Gleaner and its afternoon tabloid The Star about a 1987 Associated Press story alleging that former tourism minister Eric Anthony Abrahams had accepted bribes. According to Anderson, the court also granted the Gleaner Company leave to appeal to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, under the condition that the company pay five million Jamaican dollars (over US$100,000) to Abrahams within 60 days. Anderson expected the Privy Council to issue a ruling by September 2001. (Jamaica is an independent country within the British Commonwealth, with the British monarch as titular head of state.)
Although defamation cases are generally treated in the civil courts, the Libel and Slander Act of 1961 mandates prison terms of up to three years. Even so, local journalists seem relatively optimistic about the future. “Jamaican media are in a healthy and comparatively free state despite the restraint of current libel laws and the 1911 Official Secrets Act,” said Donna Ortega, president of the Press Association of Jamaica. “There is, however, a veil of secrecy remaining over the operations of the public service … It is hoped that amendments to the Freedom of Information Act as well as a program of education for civil servants will go a long way towards real change in this area.”