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Proposed Defamation Act is an ATTACK ON THE MEDIA: The Courts want truth – Journalists prefer facts

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Posted: Friday, March 11, 2022. 4:54 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Norris Hall: THE Briceno Administration recently introduced in parliament, a new Bill to repeal the current Libel and Defamation Act and to replace it with a new all-encompassing Defamation Act.

The Bill is now being considered by the House Constitution and Foreign Affairs Committee.

This Bill is audacious, repressive and over-reaching. It virtually puts a gag order on the media. It limits the ability of journalists to effectively function as the Fourth Estate in this small democracy and as a check and balance for good governance. It inhibits and limits the watchdog role of the media as one of the guardians of an open democracy. The media is an enabler for democracy.

A free and objective media should be allowed to function unfettered in the public’s interest.

This Bill aims to hamstrung journalists with a thread of heavy censorship that deliberately intimidates them and limits their ability to function in the best interest of society.

It is bad Law.

Parts of this Bill go beyond a fundamental purpose of law which is for the protection of liberties and rights. This Bill does just the opposite of that. For instance, the Bill states, subjectively, that journalists, in doing their jobs, must provide fair and accurate reports on the meetings of Corporations and of Boards and Committees. This, like many other examples are simply overreaching. It is not the role of a journalist to act as a public relations agency for governments nor corporations.

As a fundamental rule of thumb in the profession, journalists must be skeptics in seeking the facts beyond the white-washed veils of glossy annual reports, press releases and public statements.

This Bill also seeks to prevent the publication “of any matter which is not of public concern and the publication of which is not for the public benefit.” Who determines that? What law in any free society allows any democratically functioning government, corporation or organization to determine what is in the public interest?

It comes back to the age-old argument of who determines what the public ought to have and what the public should actually have? And if there is such a determination, it cannot be made as such a blanket declaration. This is why there are provisions in the Constitution that provides for Statutory Instruments, also known as Executive Orders in national emergencies.

This Bill is offensive, or should be, for any reasonable thinking citizen. Is it intended as a precursor to future cover-ups? This is totally unacceptable in a free and democratic society.

Is this a ploy to inhibit journalists from investigating and reporting corruption in the government and in corporations? This is unequivocally unacceptable in ANY law and certainly it is a misfit in a law that is intended to address the matter of defamation rather than an attempt to inhibit free reporting, the search for facts and a fundamental right to know.

It is in fact in direct conflict with the Freedom of Information Act, that was enacted in the year 2000.

Under this Act, numerous attempts by journalists to obtain information in the public interest found it to be more repressive than even before it was enacted “to promote the maximum disclosure of information in the public interest”. This defamation Bill rejects that law.

In other parts of the Bill it states: “the defense of fair comment can be relied on “if an honest person (subjective opinion) can assert any fact which existed at the time…” Is it not under our laws that a ‘dishonest’ person, could be subject to a charge of perjury, or in layman’s term guilty of ‘willfully lying?’

This Bill is so twisted and biased against free speech and the free press, that is appears to put a defendant at great disadvantage in a case of defamation. It actually “straight-jackets” a defendant as opposed to the liberties afforded to a plaintiff under this Bill.

The Bill also juxtaposes Truth and Facts as if they are one and the same. They are not. Courts are interested in truth, which is usually elusive and serves the benefit of a plaintiff. Facts – empirical FACTs are Facts. It is usually the only defence a journalist has when the cards are stacked against him/her, as it is in this outrageous oppressive Bill.

There are so many cases where the innocents have been sent to prison based on “Truth” only to be vindicated years after when the FACTS emerge. Truth is variable. It depends on perception, pre-conceived notions, the body of evidence that is available at the time and other variables.

Facts, on the other hand, are facts, empirical facts.

However, in this Bill, the defendant must prove to the Court that his/her FACT, his/her evidence is true, or “not materially different from the truth.”

There is more in the application of Truth vs Facts in this junkyard Bill intended for enactment into the Statutes. (Part IV-Defence). This Bill treats Truth as Fact and that Fact is the variable or interchangeable.

This is an onslaught on justice as if Lady Justice had her blindfold removed.

There are numerous subtle nuances in this Bill that make it dangerous and undemocratic. It cannot be relied on in the defence of justice. It is intimidating. This Bill is in a way, designed to intimidate the media and to suppress the freedom of expression.

It is obviously and shamelessly intended to protect the powerful, the ‘monied’ and the influential. These are the types of people who don’t like to be criticized and don’t like having their dirty linens aired in public. Because they have money and the influence, they can hire high price lawyers as “truth fixers” in the Court, as they don’t always tell the truth nor do they fight fair.

The only defence for a journalist in such cases of defamation is facts, facts, facts.

The bottom line is that the cards are stacked against journalists in a case of defamation under this new Banana Republic type Bill.

Furthermore, Justice for a journalist/defendant comes at a high cost for a defendant who is faced with the crippling cost of legal proceedings. In addition to being a vicious attack against the free press, the Bill provides no solace for a defendant, who if he/she loses the case may have to pay damages and other costs. Even if the defendant wins the case based on Facts, he/she is likely to face an Invasion of Privacy charge by a callous plaintiff. He has little recourse.

This new Defamation Bill also fits into another dimension known as State Capture, in which the ruling elite and powerful business men manipulate and significantly influence the State’s decision-making process to their own advantage.

It is likely that this Bill is designed to hush the media in reporting if only superficially, on certain issues that are beginning to look like State Capture on the waterfront of Belize City.

This new Defamation Bill that is being considered by the House Constitution and Foreign Affairs Committee is un-constitutional. The Belize Constitution guarantees (responsible) free speech and press freedom, including the right to know and to investigate what may not be considered in the public interest.

This Bill is junk law. It is oppressive for the media and facilitates audacious undemocratic and corrupt practices as it attempts to rein in the media for undertaking its democratic responsibility.

It is an attack on free speech and freedom of the press.

This is a slippery slope that should not be left unchallenged.

Publish and be damned (Duke of Wellington in 1824).

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