Smith leads calls to end 'archaic' criminal libel laws

RIGHTS Bahamas yesterday renewed calls for an end to archaic criminal libel laws after social media commentator Gorman Bannister was remanded to prison over the offence.

Bannister was arraigned before Senior Magistrate Derrence Rolle-Davis over allegations he intentionally defamed ex-Cabinet minister Tennyson Wells in a series of voice notes. He was charged with two counts of intentional libel, bail was denied and he was remanded to prison. However, he was bailed a short time later, this newspaper understands.

The human rights group said criminal libel is unconstitutional and has no place in a modern democracy.

RB legal director Fred Smith yesterday said calls for the abolition of the criminal libel laws went back to the early 1980s.

Mr Smith said: "No government, of any party hue, should have criminal libel laws in its arsenal of powers to limit freedom of expression. Rights Bahamas renews its call on the government to enact a human rights act and to legislate against hate speech."

The RB statement continued: "At a time when, around the world, countries are abandoning tyrannical anti-free speech laws, the Bahamas seems increasingly to be keeping company with oppressive regimes and brutal dictatorships.

"In recent times, we have noticed a very disturbing trend by those in politics and law enforcement of wanting to silence critics and those who exercise their freedom of expression by means of arrest and imprisonment."

On Monday, Bannister, 65, denied allegations he distributed voice notes on Facebook and/or WhatsApp on May 2, 2018, which made damaging claims about Mr Wells and his wife, Stephanie. Nonetheless, the Crown claims Bannister made those posts about Mr and Mrs Wells in a bid to defame their character, thereby subjecting them to "general hatred, contempt or ridicule".

The RB statement read: "From time to time, people say will things that others find insulting and offensive, but there is a fair and just remedy through the civil courts for all those who have been wronged. In civilised countries, when a person's reputation is unduly harmed, that individual can sue and if successful, reestablish their good name in the public sphere and win significant damages from the person by whom they feel aggrieved.

"Aside from hate speech, which incites violence or hostility against a particular group in society, no one should be snatched up by the authorities, charged with a criminal offence and imprisoned for speaking their mind," it added.

Bannister also pleaded not guilty to one count of misuse of the telecommunications system. It is alleged that sometime between January and this month, he posted more than 30 images and words on his Facebook pages "Black Belt Leaks", "Black Belt News", and "Gorman Bannister" via electronic devices, a mobile phone and/or personal computer, in a bid to depict Oswald Poitier as a homosexual; to suggest the man is a paedophile; to show a personal image and video of his residence; to make degrading comment about Mr Poitier's parents; and to suggest that Mr Poitier "just kill himself".

For the misuse of the telecommunications system charge, Bannister was granted $1,500 bail with one suretor. The matters were adjourned to September 17 for trial. Bannister is represented by attorney Roberto Reckley, and has a right to apply to the Supreme Court for bail.