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New Criminal Libel Laws Could Stifle Media

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Vanuatu has a whole set of new amendments to the country’s Penal Code Act (CAP 135) that slipped under the radar without notice, or input that it should have been accorded, if leaders had given more thought to its implications.

These were amendments that strike at the heart of our democracy.

It is clear politicians cannot fathom the fact the position they hold is public and must learn to live with the close scrutiny their everyday actions often attract.

In an age of information technology and social media frenzy, the public – citizens to be more precise, have come to believe that they are custodians of this sovereign nation.

But it seems the politicians’ best approach was to draw the sword and lunge it straight at the messenger.

The amendment, among many other list of concerns, makes it an offense for a media reporter, blogger or social media user to publish something on any public platforms that is likely to:

  • Expose another person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule;

  • Injure that person’s profession, reputation, office, business, trade or occupation; and

Sub-article 2 of Section 120 and 121 of the amended law also makes it an offense to make any false written representation on any public platforms:

  • Knowing that the matter is false

  • Being reckless as to whether or not the matter is false

The new sections of the Penal Code also go on to explain what the definition of false representation mean.

To be fair, the above do have very good intentions. No one likes being criticised unfairly. No one likes being insulted publicly. In fact no one should be subjected to abuse on social media or the media in general. However, for officials holding public office, they should also appreciate that there will be times when people will question and debate the lawfulness of their actions. There will be times when public scrutiny must be allowed to be brought to bear so that the public, - rightful custodians of this democracy, are given the opportunity to dissect the issues at play, which might be critical to their economic and social wellbeing.

One cannot expect, or even assume that the public, will have all the information that they need when expressing their views through public forums. It never has been, even for developed countries. Therefore room should be made for people to retract comments, if they made them without obtaining full information.

Under the new amendments, there is currently no place for a retraction, or even public apology – normal mechanisms for newsrooms or media establishment to put records straight.

We at Campaign for Justice believe that these amendments have come onto the floor of parliament without the scrutiny that they deserved, especially when key stakeholders were not given a chance to have a say. We might even venture to say they could be deemed unconstitutional.

The media, since the signing of the Constitution in 1979 has always played a key role in our democracy regardless of which side one takes on the political spectrum. We are sure the media has now been accepted as part of this democracy. As such instead of reverting to draconian tactics, leaders should learn to face the music when their actions come to light through media.

What if someone was making a fair comment or asking questions out of public interest? Our biggest fear is that there is grave danger that someone holding a public office can easily abuse the law, either to stifle the media, or shut out public scrutiny on a dodgy decision.

Recent reports highlighting these concerns are contained in a story that recently ran in Daily Post where a minister in government threatened he would be seeking the opinion of Public Prosecutor over allegations that were carried in a separate story alleging that he and his first political advisor had demanded bribes from a local shipping company.

For now, the amendment seems genuine and addresses a long standing concern over abusive language on social media platforms. Time will tell if this law is good for the country. We believe the amendments are not only unconstitutional; they are a carte blanche for politicians to hide corrupt dealings without impunity.

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