Courts want the truth – Journalists prefer the facts
Posted: Friday, March 11, 2022. 4:54 PM CST.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
By Norris Hall: The Briceno administration recently presented a new bill to parliament to repeal the current Libel and Defamation Act and replace it with a new comprehensive Libel Act.
The bill is currently being considered by the House Constitution and Foreign Affairs Committee.
This bill is bold, repressive and over the top. It practically puts a gag on the media. This limits the ability of journalists to function effectively 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 are a catalyst for democracy.
Free and objective media should be allowed to operate unimpeded in the interest of the public.
This bill aims to cripple journalists with a heavy censorship thread that deliberately intimidates them and limits their ability to function in the best interests of society.
It is a bad law.
Certain parts of this bill go beyond a fundamental objective of the law, which is the protection of freedoms and rights. This bill does the exact opposite of that. For example, the bill states, subjectively, that journalists, in the performance of their duties, must provide fair and accurate reports of meetings of corporations and boards and committees. This, like many other examples, simply goes too far. It is not the role of a journalist to act as a public relations agency for governments or corporations.
As a fundamental rule of thumb in the profession, journalists should be skeptical when seeking facts beyond the whitewashed veils of glossy annual reports, press releases and public statements.
This bill also seeks to prevent the publication “of any matter which is not in the public interest and the publication of which is not in the public interest”. Who determines this? What law in a free society allows any democratically functioning government, society or organization to determine what is in the public interest?
It goes back to the age-old argument of who determines what the public should have and what the public should actually have? And if there is such a determination, it cannot be made as such a general statement. This is why the Constitution contains provisions for regulations, also called executive orders in the event of a national emergency.
This bill is, or should be, offensive to any reasonable citizen. Is it intended as a precursor to future cover-ups? This is totally unacceptable in a free and democratic society.
Is it a ploy to prevent journalists from investigating and reporting corruption in government and business? This is unequivocally unacceptable in ANY law and it is certainly an inadequacy in a law that is intended to address the issue of defamation rather than an attempt to hinder free reporting, fact finding and a fundamental right to know.
It is in fact in direct conflict with the Freedom of Information Act, which was enacted in the year 2000.
Under this law, many attempts by journalists to obtain information of public interest have proven to be more repressive than even before its enactment “to promote the maximum disclosure of information of public interest”. This libel bill rejects that law.
In other parts of the bill, it says, “the defense of fair comment is available ‘if an honest person (subjective opinion) can assert a fact that existed at the time…” Right? under our laws that a “dishonest” person, could be charged with perjury or, in simple terms, guilty of “willfully lying?”
This bill is so twisted and biased against freedom of speech and freedom of the press that it appears to disadvantage a defendant in a defamation case. It is effectively a “straitjacket” for a defendant as opposed to the freedoms granted to a plaintiff under this bill.
The bill also juxtaposes truth and facts as if they were one. They are not. Courts are interested in truth, which is generally elusive and benefits the plaintiff. Facts – Empirical FACTS are Facts. It’s usually the only defense a journalist has when the cards are stacked against them, as in this outrageous and oppressive bill.
There are so many cases where innocent people have been sent to prison on the basis of the “truth” to be vindicated years after the FACTS have emerged. The truth varies. It depends on perception, preconceived notions, the body of evidence 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 FACT, his testimony is true or “not materially different from the truth”.
There is more to the application of truth against fact in this scrap bill destined to be enacted into statute. (Part IV-Defence). This bill treats truth as a fact and that fact is the variable or the interchangeable.
It’s an assault on justice as if Lady Justice had taken off her blindfold.
There are many subtle nuances in this bill that make it dangerous and undemocratic. It cannot be relied upon to uphold justice. It’s intimidating. This bill is somehow intended to intimidate the media and suppress freedom of expression.
It is obviously and shamelessly intended to protect the powerful, the “rich” and the influential. These are the types of people who don’t like to be criticized and don’t like having their dirty laundry aired out in public. Because they have money and influence, they can hire very expensive lawyers as “truth-fixers” in court, because they don’t always tell the truth and don’t fight fair.
A journalist’s only defense in such defamation cases is facts, facts, facts.
Ultimately, the cards are played against journalists in a libel case under this new Banana Republic-style bill.
Moreover, justice for a journalist/defendant has a high cost for a defendant who faces the prohibitive cost of legal proceedings. Besides being a vicious attack on the free press, the bill brings no consolation to a defendant who, if he loses the case, may have to pay damages and other costs. Even if the defendant wins the case based on the facts, he is likely to face a charge of invasion of privacy by an insensitive plaintiff. He has little recourse.
This new libel bill also fits into another dimension known as State Capture, in which the ruling elite and powerful businessmen significantly manipulate and influence state decision-making. to their own advantage.
It is likely that this bill is intended to stifle even cursory media reporting on certain issues that are beginning to look like state capture on the Belize City waterfront.
This new libel bill that is being considered by the House Constitution and Foreign Affairs Committee is unconstitutional. Belize’s Constitution guarantees freedom of (accountable) speech and freedom of the press, including the right to know and investigate what may not be considered to be in the public interest.
This bill is junk legislation. It is oppressive to the media and facilitates bold undemocratic and corrupt practices as it attempts to rein in the media to fulfill their democratic responsibility.
It is an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
It’s a slippery slope that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Publish and be damned (Duke of Wellington in 1824).
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