The defamation laws in Trinidad and Tobago were established by the Libel and Defamation Act, first established in of January 1846 and reflects British colonial law (as set forth in Lord Campbell’s Act, repealed in England and Wales in 2009). Trinidad & Tobago was an English Colony, as were many of the Caribbean Islands, until it gained independence in 1962, becoming a republic in 1976.
The general definition of defamation in Trinidad & Tobago is as follows: A communication (usually an allegation or accusation), either written or spoken, that harms the reputation or honor of the subject of the communication, generally by identifying a character trait or course of action that exposes the subject to hatred, contempt or ridicule. The communication must be conveyed to at least one person other than the subject and the person the communication allegedly defames must be identifiable. In some cases, the communication may be a statement of opinion if the listener would assume that opinion is based on facts known to the speaker. Depending on the jurisdiction, the truth of the communication may or may not be a defense against liability.
There are two types of defamation; libel and slander. Libel is a defamatory statement in a permanent form, usually written, e.g. in a newspaper, book, letters, paintings, etc. Slander is a defamatory statement in a (non-permanent) form, usually by means of spoken words or gesture (very difficult to prove).
You also have in the law civil defamation which is addressed under a country’s civil laws. Such cases involve lawsuits between two or more private parties. Depending on the relevant law,
such cases may require a showing of damages.
A controversial portion of the Trinidad & Tobago defamation law is called Criminal Defamation. Criminal Defamation is addressed under a country’s criminal laws and it generally requires showing that an individual knowingly made a statement that is false and without having any regard as to whether it is true or false did so with the intent to harm the subject’s reputation or with reckless disregard for the subject’s reputation. The truth of the statement is not a defense to liability. Importantly, actions for criminal defamation involve prosecution by the state and carry the potential imposition of criminal penalties. Those found guilty could face up to two years in prison. The Act is extremely plaintiff-friendly.
Trinidad and Tobago’s defamation laws can seem outdated and some sources state that the law prevents open public debate about authority figures and stops the media from being able hold the government to account for wrong doing. The media is often blamed for the lack of investigative journalism in Trinidad and Tobago, but journalists argue that the problem is the restrictive laws.
In 1997, the government published a paper titled, “Reform of Media Law Towards a Free and Responsible Media”, in recognition of the need for reform to Trinidad and Tobago’s defamation laws. The paper called for the replacement of the Libel and Defamation Act with legislation that would abolish criminal libel and better protect freedom of the press.
Parts of the paper were challenged by parts of the media and the government continued researching. In 2001 a defamation reform bill was presented to parliament. The bill included some defenses of truth, and worked to prevent frivolous claims. It also encouraged offers to make amends in the form of public apologies more than paying financial damages. The idea was to help restore the plaintiffs’ reputation which in some cases is much more important that money.
The passing of the bill would have removed virtually all criminal penalties for defamation, though those convicted of making “untrue statements” could still face a fine of $ 5,000 Trinidad Dollars in certain cases. In October 2001, the bill lapsed and sat dormant until very recently.
Trinidad and Tobago has one of the largest media centers in the Caribbean and yet a great many journalists feel that there has been a marked decrease in press freedom. A number of media outlets have been forced to settle defamation lawsuits in court.
This issue appears to be gaining movement once again. In a recent speech Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Pesad- Bissessar said “I want to signal our intention to review our defamation laws and bring them in line with international best practice.