Free speech under threat?

The recent announcement by Cabinet in which it informed the public that it would be submitting a bill on Friday in the Sitting of the House of Representatives seeking to increase the fine and penalty for spreading or publishing “false” news has led several in the public, including media personalities and lawyers, to question whether the government is aiming at stifling free speech.

On Wednesday Cabinet informed that they had given the nod to amend the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act Chapter 98 of the Substantive Laws of Belize to increase the penalty for the offense of spreading or publishing false news from a penalty of up to $300 to $3,000 or imprisonment of up to six months in the first instance. Currently, the fine for that offense is $300 or six months imprisonment.

Of note is that prior to the announcement the government did not consult with the public or any of the local media houses. Something which senior media personality Jules Vasquez, who is also the Managing Director of Tropical Vision Limited (Channel 7), referred to as offensive.

Vasquez told the Reporter, “I think that it is completely sinister and it opens a door for the muzzling of the operation of the press, to stifle the press and limit the press in what they can report. We know that application can be selective at times, we know from operating in this business that oftentimes the difference between truth and false is not as obvious as we would want it to be.”

Vasquez then went on to refer to the most recent defamation case involving Prime Minister John Briceño and former BTB Director Karen Bevans. Vasquez asked whether the PM would be charged under the proposed law or if he would be an exception due to his elite status.

“It is a slippery slope when you leave the state to decide what can be reported and what can’t be reported,” reiterated Vasquez.

Also chiming in on the proposed bill was attorney Darrel Bradley, who told the Reporter, “I think this is dangerous. Free speech is protected by the Constitution and we should not be too quick to increase penalties in cases of supposed false news.”

Bradley then further pointed out that these types of laws can be used to stifle legitimate debate or to attack political opponents because they have no qualification. While Bradley said that he understands the current situation with COVID-19 there must be a balance to ensure that laws are not overly harsh in the area of information sharing.

Bradley added that he would need to see the actual proposed amendment for further comments but that “such allegations raise the constitutional right to freedom of speech.”

Vasquez who himself had come under the scrutiny of the Commissioner of Police a couple of months ago for allegedly publishing what the Commissioner referred to as fake news told the Reporter that in every practice of journalism around the world mistakes are made. He also questioned whether the political newspapers and political radios and TV stations will be penalized under the new amendments.

In closing, Vasquez said that he views the amendments as anti-press and anti freedom of expression, something which he says he has an issue with.” It could potentially give law enforcement too much latitude in trying to enforce what they believe is facts and it’s really sinister and I think it is a backhanded attempt to have a tool at hand that they can use to pressure the media and when necessary to cudgel or beat the media, and that is something that I certainly have a problem with.

The Reporter attempted to get a comment from the Vice President of the Human Rights Commission of Belize Cynthia Pitts but she told us that she would be forwarding the matter to the board so that they could discuss it at a board meeting scheduled for Thursday evening.

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