A Dominican Republic court sentenced a journalist to three months in jail for libeling another journalist. (Many thanks to Roy Greenslade for reporting this at The Guardian. For a more detailed look at the case read the story at the International Press Institute: Dominican Republic journalist sentenced to prison for defamation)
The case arose when journalist Melton Pineda accused fellow scribe Marino Zapete of knowing and covering up crimes allegedly committed by a police captain. At the time Zapete was serving as national police spokesman.
Zapete sued Pineda and asked for a jail term of six months and a RD$50 million. (US$1.3 million) fine. The judge settled on a three-month sentence and a fine of RD$100 (US$2.55) . The judge further ordered Pineda to pay the RD$50 million to Zapete in civil damages.
Pineda is appealing the decision.
The whole issue here is the use of criminal law to deal with what should be a civil matter.
The idea of imposing criminal penalties for defamation is not something most countries are willing to accept. Especially democracies with a strong tradition of freedom of speech, press and expression. The use of criminal prosecution to deal with libel cases means that journalists can face serious jail time for reporting on the foibles and abuse of political or community leaders.
The United States about two dozen states have “criminal libel” going back to the earliest founding of the country. But there are some legislators who are trying to remove these last vestiges of the 16th century Star Chambers. (Criminal libel: a bad idea in a free society)
Still in the U.S., truth is an absolute defense against libel. Not so in other countries. And working through that international minefield is something journalists around the world need to take seriously.
The Dominican case is another example of how different countries deal with the issue of press freedom and libel.
Fortunately there seems to be a movement in the Caribbean to do away with criminal defamation laws.
In simple terms, the use of criminal prosecution for libel means the government is the final arbiter of the media. And if the government can do this in libel cases it can easily extend its reach to other forms of communication.
In some cases the anti-defamation laws are called “insult” laws. Some countries — even democracies — have legal provisions that make it a crime to insult the dignity of the country’s leaders. The World Press Freedom Committee notes: “Public officials deserve less — not more — protection from public commentary than ordinary citizens”.
The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe has a handy guide to the defamation laws in more than 50 countries. Any journalist getting ready to work in or report on any of these countries should look this document over carefully.