At least three high-ranking Saint Lucian public officials have announced plans to sue a local radio broadcaster for defamation after the broadcaster read on-air an investigative news article alluding to possible wrongdoing by members of the current governing party.
The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over the intent behind the lawsuits, noting that questions have arisen not only as to which content the officials found objectionable; but also as to why the latter have chosen to sue a broadcaster who read a publicly-available news item without comment and not the regional, United States-headquartered online news site that actually wrote the article.
Timothy Poleon, host of the program “Newsspin” on Radio Caribbean read the article in its entirety on Sept. 25, the same day it was published by Caribbean News Now. The article suggested that the U.S. government’s recent decision to terminate security-related assistance to Saint Lucia, ostensibly over apparent human rights violations, may also have been influenced by a local “propaganda campaign” that some claim deliberately misled the United States into cancelling the visa of Richard Frederick, a former Saint Lucian government minister, in 2011.
At least three government officials – Legal Affairs Minister Phillip La Corbiniere; Tourism, Heritage and Creative Industries Minister Lorne Theophilus; and Senate President Claudius Francis – have now stated their intention to sue Poleon for defamation.
According to pre-action protocol letters obtained by IPI, lawyers for Theophilus and Francis allege that Poleon had “substantially harmed” their clients’ reputation through “defamatory words, the nature of which are deeply distressing and embarrassing to our client.” The letter specified as defamatory a paragraph, among others, in which the article’s author referred to two unnamed “prominent” Saint Lucia government officials who the article said had engaged in a particular criminal activity. The description used could “reasonably lead people” to identify the officials in question, the letter alleges.
Among other questions, it was not immediately clear why, if the paragraph refers to two government officials, three have announced suits, with possibly more to come. La Corbiniere, the first to threaten legal action, has never specified publicly which additional content he found offensive. The legal affairs minister also added recently that “a number of ministers have also instructed their attorneys to begin to take legal action of various kinds,” without going into detail as to the cause for that action.
Speaking to IPI, Caribbean News Now editor Barry Randall said he was “completely at a loss to understand what in our original article is remotely actionable – which tends to raise the suspicion of media intimidation pure and simple”. Rick Wayne, editor of the St. Lucia Star, added that he was “convinced the whole aim is to frighten the rest of the media”, which, he added, “is easy to do”.
Announcing his plans to sue Poleon and Radio Caribbean over the Frederick article, La Corbiniere said that he would not let his reputation be “destroyed” by “a ragtag called Caribbean News because it’s nothing more than a ragtag”. He added that he did not seek to “muzzle the press”, but that “things have to be done properly and [journalists] cannot pursue this type of agenda”. Indeed, the minister has accused the media of embarking on a “concerted effort to undermine” him, without providing details; he has also not specified why he was targeting Poleon and Radio Caribbean in particular, but not Caribbean News Now.
“The filing of civil suits, including the sending of pre-action protocol letters, should be used only as a method of redressing legitimate grievances, and never simply as a means of intimidating the media when one dislikes or is offended by their work”, IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “The Saint Lucian officials in question should more precisely explain what they view as actionable in the article in question and why – and offer evidence for that view. International standards are clear in requiring public officials to accept a higher degree of scrutiny and criticism as well as a higher burden of proof when filing civil defamation suits.”
Trionfi continued: “IPI is concerned that the decision to target Mr. Poleon and Radio Caribbean for legal action may be designed to intimidate local Saint Lucian media in particular from covering controversial topics, including by not carrying international content in the public interest.”
Wayne, of the St. Lucia Star, told IPI his decision to publicly criticise the response to the Frederick article was not related to the merits of the article but rather to the need to stand up for freedom of expression. Objecting to the idea of public officials filing suit against the media, he added: “If something is said about you with regard to your conduct in terms of a public servant that is not true, all you need to do is inform the public of the truth and the truth will set you free.”
In August, the U.S. State Department announced it would end cooperation with the Saint Lucian police force based on the Leahy amendment, which prohibits the U.S. government from providing assistance to security forces that have been accused of human-rights abuses. Saint Lucian Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony said in a public address later that month that the decision was related to 12 reported extrajudicial killings that took place on the island between 2010 and 2011.