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Traditional media discuss Defamation Bill

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Posted: Monday, February 28, 2022. 10:06 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: Last week Monday, the Constitution and Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives met with members of the press in Belmopan to discuss the Defamation Bill, which seeks to both expand and limit actions on defamation as a single tort.

As explained by committee Chairman Julius Espat, “We had the presence of the attorneys from the Attorney General’s Ministry who were the legal draftspeople. They took note of your comments and I thought they were good comments, very important information. And so, the Committee has decided that that Bill will go back to the Attorney General’s Ministry. We will await further comment from – I understand that you don’t have an association but at least, if you can do it individually – by the fifteenth of March, that information will be taken into account. And then we will send back the proposed revised Bill so that you can review it again.”

Added member and Minister of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology Francis Fonseca: “We want the Bill to work for you; we want the Bill to work for Belize; we want a strong press that is protected.”

And he stated in response to concerns that the law is being used as a fetter, a threat to journalists who are doing their jobs, “There is an opportunity now, if people believe there are weaknesses, that the bill does not sufficiently meet the needs of the media, there is the opportunity for us to address that issue. But again, I will make the point and I encourage everyone to, it is law, so it is not easy for everyone to understand and digest, to appreciate but I encourage certainly the media to get the proper legal advice on the bill, I certainly, it would have been good to have a comprehensive discussion with the Attorney General’s office, prior to the tabling of the bill, but it is not too late. We are going through the process.”

But who is the press? It depends on who you ask.

Fonseca noted that the current law and common law put greater emphasis on the protection of reputations at the expense of free speech and freedom of expression. The new law, he said, includes protections and defenses for the press and others accused of defamation.

There is an added dimension – social media and particularly Facebook. Fonseca sought to distinguish between what he called “unestablished media” and fake Facebook profiles used purely for attack: “What the bill does provide for is to bring under the law unestablished media, so where you have Facebook pages or social media pages that are holding themselves out to be media houses, or operating as media outlets, they are of course held accountable. They are saying like hot off the press as an example Breaking Belize News, these are strictly online media outlets, self-described media outlets, but nobody knows who is behind them, so they are what you called unestablished media and they are captured under this bill. So, they have to be held responsible and accountable as well, but that’s entirely different from individuals having fake Facebook profiles. That is a matter that has to be policed by Facebook and there is a process for reporting of Facebook profiles, fake profiles.”

In BBN’s case, we will simply note that we were first established as a website, not on Facebook, in November 2013 and that our profile has expanded to cover other social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp, and so on. Our established model redirects all social media links to our website where stories are reposited, and we have established an internal model of communication, editing and review, and feedback to ensure that all stories we publish are accurate, timely, and constructive. More importantly, we are a legally registered business with the Companies Registry and have a  listed address in San Ignacio, Cayo District, and employ persons including this reporter countrywide.

For the record, BBN is also officially registered for General Sales Tax (GST) and Business Tax and is paying and up to date with the payment of taxes. We are also officially registered with Social Security, and other fees to the Government, unlike all other social media entities that purport themselves as news outlets.

While Breaking Belize News may not be considered a traditional media outlet, it is a well established and modern media house and as such Minister Fonseca, not being well informed, was inaccurate in his characterization of BBN.

 

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