In the Commonwealth Caribbean, the field of media and entertainment law is not as developed as it is in the US or the UK. Of course, the industry evolves on the basis of the needs and demographics of the population in each location. For example, the US has a thriving celebrity culture which burgeons its economy. Celebrities have reputations as well as their privacy to protect, so this type of law is utilised extensively. While the Caribbean is not known to be a litigious region with regard to celebrities, journalists are consistently called out by politicians with accusations of libel, and have become vulnerable to vague and costly clauses in cybercrime and data-protection legislation.
This is why the book Newsroom Law: A Legal Guide for Commonwealth Caribbean Journalists, by TT judge Justice Kathy Ann Waterman-Latchoo, comes at a crucial point. The text covers these legal issues in great detail, with case histories and examples to create useful context for the reader.
“After I qualified as an attorney-at-law – and I never stopped reading and researching media law,” Waterman-Latchoo said, “I came to understand that an understanding and an appreciation of the law would really enhance journalists’ ability to do what they do.
“I would like to tell journalists that the law actually loves you. because you are a manifestation of that constitutionally guaranteed right called freedom of expression and specifically in TT, freedom of the press.”
As a foundation for the newcomer, Newsroom Law explains how the courts work and also expounds on the right which underpins the entire journalism industry: the right to freedom of expression. Waterman-Latchoo writes that freedom of expression “is a barometer of a healthy democracy; a safety valve for social dissent; a checkpoint for independence; and a brake on government power, interface and abuse.”
The 270-page text is the first of its kind. Never before has a text about Commonwealth media law been written for journalists. Newsroom Law includes relevant and timely precedents and cases all media personnel can reflect on and learn from. In my own doctoral research, I found that in local newsroom culture, mainly editors and court reporters have a true grasp of these laws, while other journalists in the newsroom rely on their managers to safeguard against anything litigious.
The text also discusses the need to analyse and amend certain clauses in legislation like cybercrime and data-protection laws, as they lack exemption clauses for journalists, which compromises their ability to work without fear or interference. Waterman-Latchoo said that Caribbean territories such as the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and TT have passed a Data Protection Act “which prohibits obtaining, keeping, processing and disclosing personal information or date.”
However, there is a major issue with the enforcement of this act for journalists.
“The main difficulty with the legislation in TT and the Bahamas is that is contains no exemptions for journalists legitimately going about their business of news gathering and investigating matters in the public interest,” Waterman-Latchoo writes.
The act prevents sharing information about the race, nationality, education, marital status, age, address and even the name of an individual. There is no acknowledgement of a public-interest exemption. Therefore, a journalist publishing these details about a person could face a penalty of fines and even jail time. Waterman-Latchoo relates, “After a flood of criticism, the TT legislation only partially came into force via Legal Notice 2 of 2012, the offending sections remaining in limbo. Government promised to review it.”
At a recent panel on challenges to press freedom hosted by the Media Institute of the Caribbean, Waterman-Latchoo identified the chilling effect this type of legislation can have on the ability of journalists to carry out their roles, and maintained that journalists should indeed challenge this legislation.
“The courts are for everybody,” she said. “You and your media house have to be willing to challenge certain decisions and get the independent courts to pronounce on it.”
The text also gives an exhaustive explanation of the application of the Privy Council's landmark ruling commonly referred to as the Reynolds defence, as well as a thorough appraisal of the rules and regulations on court reporting, contempt of court and election reporting.
In the chapter “The Investigative Journalist,” Waterman-Latchoo outlines the “means to an end” debate on whether investigative methods can always be justified as being in the public interest. The same chapter also explores the legislation on eavesdropping and hacking, covert operations, protection of sources, harassment, photography, search warrants, anti-crime secrecy, trespassing, whistleblowers and official secrets.
The chapter on damages contextualises cases throughout the region, the types of damages sought, and the justification behind the amounts. For investigative journalists or journalists working during the run-up to elections, this information is particularly useful when weighing the risk of publishing. Other chapters include “Copyright,” “Freedom of Information” and “Privacy and Confidence,” which are all extremely useful for journalists working on every platform.
Chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of TT (COSTAATT) Joel Nanton said the department is considering making the book part of its mandatory reading list for its journalism students.
“It’s an important read for Caribbean journalists and students pursuing media studies,” he said.
Curtis Rampersad, head of news at the Trinidad Express, commented that the text is refreshingly nuanced, citing key points of contention that can be overlooked.
“It is useful in that it has provided a reminder of the things we think we know but that we take for granted sometimes,” he said. “One of those things would be photo captions, which can be surprisingly libellous if we don’t pay attention to them the same exact way we would pay attention to a story.”
Wesley Gibbings, vice president of the Jamaica-based Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) and an executive member of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), commented on how much Caribbean newsrooms need this text.
“This is a great resource that should occupy prominent space in newsrooms throughout the Caribbean,” he said. “It is much more than a text on the laws that influence media practice, as it also explores broader issues of media development and industry governance.”
As a journalist and doctoral researcher studying the connection between journalism culture and media law, this text elevated my understanding tremendously. Before this book was published it was very difficult to get information on cases in the region without a tedious search of various law archives. This work stands as a great contribution to the academic community as well as the journalism profession. The legal education offered by Newsroom Law: A Legal Guide for Commonwealth and Caribbean Journalists is a priceless tool in the library of any researcher and the arsenal of any journalist.
Newsroom Law: A Legal Guide for Commonwealth Caribbean Journalists is published by UWI Press and is available at amazon.com.
Aurora Herrera is a PhD researcher in journalism at City University, London