EDITORIAL: There ‘oughta’ be a law…
That there ought to be a law is a cry often heard from lay individuals who honestly believe that the enactment of an appropriate statute is a measure guaranteed to remove the mischief at which it is aimed. In the week just past however, calls for a change in the law as it currently exists came from two prominent individuals, both of them learned in the law.
First, the Honourable Prime Minister, Ms. Mia Amor Mottley, voiced surprise that those individuals on trial for murder were still being granted bail, a comment that echoed an earlier wonderment from former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart; both observations doubtless owed to an apparent propensity of contemporary bailed local murder accused to commit an identical offence once released, as has happened in a few cases recently.
Of course, Ms. Mottley and her current Cabinet have the necessary parliamentary capacity to enact any law to counter this nettlesome reality, but the problem and solution are far more complex than simple legislative action may resolve. Given the current state of the local law where the death penalty is no longer mandatory except in certain specific circumstances, and given the existing incidence of excessive delay before trial for murder, the courts have little option other than to grant bail to an accused murderer, if the presumption of innocence and the rule of law are to be upheld.
Any enactment along the lines of removing this presumption might indeed be ultimately deemed proportionate, but it runs the risk of being considered a calculated assault upon the constitutional guarantee to which the citizen is entitled unless coupled with an actual, and not merely promissory commensurate expedition of the period between the charge and the commencement of trial.
The second call came from Dame Billie Miller; former Senior Minister in the last Owen Arthur-led Cabinet, who now serves as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in the current administration. As reported in The Barbados Advocate for Thursday, February 13, Dame Billie pleads for an updating of Barbados’ libel (sic) laws, “because of the power and influence the Internet and social media currently hold”. While we understand Dame Billie’s concern, one that is arguably fairly widely shared, the truth is that her call appears to be one rather for the criminalization of certain undesirable forms of communication than for a reform of the defamation laws that apply with full effect to online communications as more than a few regional decisions have confirmed.
Certainly, the anonymity of most social media communication may make the vindication of infringements of one’s reputation a more complicated process and perhaps this is the area on which we might concentrate our reformist agenda. Yet, here too, we are likely to collide with the guarantee of freedom of expression that should serve as a restraining factor on any attempt to unduly limit the boundaries of permissible commentary that is so necessary for a healthy democracy.
In any event, there already exists legislation that serves to render unlawful any online communication that may be deemed offensive or threatening in character – see, for examples, section 14 of the Computer Misuse Act, Cap 124B and section 81 of the Telecommunications Act, Cap 282B.
We tend rather to agree in this connection with the comment from Mr. Alan Harris, at the same Barbados Association of Retired Persons gathering, who advised all Internet users to take responsibility for what they do online. After all, the Internet in this instance, is simply another tool for communication, much more sophisticated for sure than the smoke signal or drum, but used as they may be, simply to communicate the thoughts of the publisher.