The International Press Institute (IPI) today called on authorities in the Bahamas to ensure that the rights of the media are respected ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections.

Bahamians will go to the polls on May 7 to determine all 41 seats in the country’s House of Assembly, the lower legislative chamber. Traditionally, the leader of the party holding a majority in the House of Assembly heads the Bahamian government for five years as prime minister.   (The upper chamber, the Senate, consists of 16 members appointed by the governor-general.)

“The Bahamas is frequently – and deservedly – cited as one of the most democratic, well-governed states in the Caribbean,” IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said, highlighting the island group’s recent ranking as the third least-corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere by Transparency International, ahead of the United States.

“However,” he continued, “in terms of press freedom there is still plenty of room for improvement. While the time leading up to a vote can be particularly sensitive for politicians, critical and independent media coverage is essential to ensuring that all Bahamian citizens are informed about their choices come election day.”

IPI specifically calls upon government authorities as well as the two major political parties, the governing Free National Movement (FNM) and the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), to allow both private and state-owned media proper access to information. Equally important, the safety of journalists covering and investigating political activity must remain paramount as May 7 approaches.

While there have been few reported press-freedom violations in the Bahamas recently, Mills noted that criminal-defamation laws remain on the books. Journalists convicted of negligent libel and intentional libel can be punished with six months and two years in prison, respectively.

“Criminal-defamation laws, whether during election season or not, contribute to hesitation and self-censorship on the part of the media – hindering the free flow of information and, ultimately, democracy,” Mills explained. “Whichever party wins next month’s election should make the Bahamas a forerunner in the Caribbean by decriminalising defamation.”

Currently, the FNM holds 24 seats in the Bahamian House of Assembly, compared with 17 for the PLP. Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, who also led the government between 1992 and 2002, will lead the the FNM in next month’s vote; former prime minister Perry Christine (2002-2007) heads the PLP.  Executive power in the country is vested in a governor general representing Queen Elisabeth II, the Bahamas’s nominal head of state.

The Bahamas consistently ranks highly on a number of international indices, boasting the third-highest GDP per capita in the Western Hemisphere as well as the second-highest human development ranking in the Caribbean, trailing only Barbados.

Nevertheless, press freedom lags behind. The government has been accused of heavily favoring state-owned media over private media, which are generally seen as more critical, when giving advertising funds.  And a 2007 campaign promise by the FNM to enact a freedom-of-information (FOI) law has only recently come to fruition, with the bill being passed last month by the House of Assembly.