Monday 1 June, 2020

PAJ, Chuck in talks over possible repeal of 'no photos at court' law

Delroy Chuck

Delroy Chuck

The law which imposes a $1 million fine on journalists and others who take photographs, or who make sketches of criminal defendants at court, could yet be repealed.

Justice Minister Delroy Chuck has reportedly asked the Legal Reform Department within his Ministry to collaborate with the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) in preparing a submission that will guide the talks around the possible repeal of section 33 of the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act.

Chuck gave the commitment on Thursday during a meeting with executive members of the PAJ at his Constant Spring Road office.

In a statement on Friday, the PAJ noted that that section of the legislation prohibits the photographing or sketching of prisoners in court, or in the precincts of the court.

The PAJ’s call for a repeal of the law was prompted by the recent increase in the maximum fine associated with the offence from $20 to $1 million and a concomitant increase in the period of imprisonment to one year, up from one month.

During the meeting, PAJ President, George Davis, told the Minister that the particular section of the Act was outdated at a time when live streaming of court proceedings takes place in other jurisdictions and is set to commence in Jamaica.

“The law unduly restricts press freedom without a commensurate benefit to the administration of justice or the society,” the PAJ said.

Davis argued that the law is inconsistent with constitutional provisions that guarantee free access to information, freedom of expression and require court proceedings to be held in public.

At the same time, the PAJ has acknowledged the sensitivity of some cases, including those involving children or which raise security concerns. The organisation, which represents journalists,  said it was well aware that rules are necessary to ensure court proceedings are not disrupted and persons, including those accused of crimes, are not unduly prejudiced.

The PAJ suggested that any law to replace the old law should be based on a presumption that citizens, including members of the media, have a general right to take photographs or make sketches of accused persons.

The PAJ recommended that stakeholders be consulted in the development of a protocol to ensure judges retain control of the courts and exercise discretion to prevent photographs or sketches only in appropriate cases.    

In response, Minister Chuck affirmed his support for press freedom and the independence of the judiciary.

He emphasised that while the press must have the latitude to work, nothing must be done to impinge upon the ability of judges to control processes inside the courtroom and within the precincts of the courts.

Speaking after the meeting, Davis said, “The discussion with Minister Chuck was frank and robust. The Press Association of Jamaica looks forward to continuing the dialogue with the hope of influencing reform of the law.”

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