By Iris Gonzalez


The Official Flag of Jamaica

As of 2015, Jamaica was ranked 9 out of 180 other countries in the world in terms of its expansive protection of speech, press, and political inclusion of its citizens (Freedom House, 2015). Some of its most notable characteristics that helped it attain this high score includes its high value of free information, low rate of violence against journalists, and its recent decriminalization of defamation, for which Jamaica’s rank raised sharply in the space of a year. While it may appear to be an idyllic tropical paradise, Jamaica is a very large proponent for the protection of all speech, but does not exclude hate speech, slander, inflammatory remarks, and insults.

Historical Background

Until 1494, Jamaica existed as a Caribbean island that was inhabited by roughly 75,000  Taino Arawak people that organized themselves in hereditary townships that thrived on a subsistence economy (Bell, 1964). Then, as is the case with many indigenous groups, everything changed when the Spanish attacked. Led by the exploration of Christopher Columbus and the governance of Diego Columbus, Jamaica was colonized by the Spain as early as 1509, evidence of this being hallmarked by the names of Spanish towns such as Sevilla Nueva. True to their iconic conquest in the name of God, gold, and glory, the Spanish chose to colonize Jamaica in the hopes of discovering gold, employing the unwilling labor of the native Arawak people for this endeavor; as also is the case with native-Spanish relations, the Arawak died out in droves due to foreign disease and the Spanish did not find what they were looking for. Therefore, the Spanish began to pay some mind to ranching, as well as the harvesting of tobacco, cotton, and, most importantly, sugar.

While black slavery was a primary means of amassing labor in Jamaica while under Spanish rule, the colony did not expansively participate in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade until the colony was seized by Great Britain in a 1655 military conquest. From then on, Great Britain took over Jamaica, redoubling the Spanish’s meager effort in tilling the soil by establishing large plantations of sugar, a commodity that was in high European demand (Campbell, 1976). As such, over 736,000 African slaves were displaced from their homelands to the island to work on the sugar plantations as slaves, and while they easily outnumbered their white masters, their voices were silent in the ears of the new government. Since the Jamaican settlement was then under control of Great Britain, the representative government consisted of a crown-appointed governor, council, and an elective assembly, with the most power held by the oligarchical assembly, which comprised of mostly wealthy, white planters, due to the law which requires voters to be both white and in possession of a certain amount of land and income (Stephens, Stephens, 1986). This system of slavery and government lasted nearly two hundred years, a period of time in which slaves staged uprisings against their white masters until at last, slavery was totally abolished in Jamaica in 1838 by way of the Abolition Bill. However, because the newly freed blacks began their free lives with no or very little money, their political rights were nonexistent in the upper-class-dominated local government, so this, combined with the abuses they faced by the judiciary and legislation, led to the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, which in turn led to the hysterical upper-class’ knee-jerk reaction of ceding its independent political power to the Crown and allowing Jamaica to become a Crown Colony. (Hurwitz, Hurwitz, 1971)

While it seemed to be the end of Jamaica’s total independence, its Crown Colony purity was taken from it by an act from the Crown itself. That is, in an 1884 constitutional change, the Crown allowed for the previously non-elective Legislative Council to hold elections once again, provided that the same wealthy, white, landowning filter be applied to elections as before. From then on, not much else changed aside from restricted female suffrage, lowered financial qualifications for voters, and the foundation of the People’s National Party, a political group representative of the middle class (Waters, 1985). Then, in 1944, a new constitution was drafted that established universal adult suffrage and a limited amount of self-government for the people of Jamaica, actions which prompted the foundation of a second political party called the Jamaica Labor Party, which represented the poor lower classes. Gradually, the amount of tutelage the Crown possessed over Jamaica reduced until it finally gained internal autonomy in 1958. Four years later, Jamaica spearheaded a brief organization with other neighboring island nations called the West Indies Federation before withdrawing in 1961 due to nationalist JLP demands. And finally, in 1962, Jamaica was granted full independence as a British Commonwealth, with its own constitution drafted in the same year.

Today, Jamaica still exists as a free, independent nation with a population of 2,930,050, of which the majority are the descendants of the black slaves that were brought to the island via the slave trade; other races and ethnicities exist on the island, but they are in the minority of the population (Bryan, 2016). As a commonwealth of Great Britain, Jamaica’s government takes shape as a constitutional monarchy, the head of state being the sitting British monarch who is represented by the governor general. It is also a democratic parliamentary whose head of legislation comprises of a prime minister and a cabinet of other elected officials. While continually known as a beautiful island tourist spot and the home of Bob Marley, Jamaica is in its very core an impoverished nation with a vast disparity between the few wealthy and the many poor. Associated with this disparity is the high rate of violent crime and drug trafficking within the country, especially in poor, urban neighborhoods. Violence and fraud have also been known to infiltrate the political realm, with bribes, government corruption, and extrajudicial killings of criminals being the most common means of such discrepancies by the state. However, it remains to be seen that in lieu of its socioeconomic strife, Jamaica provides a wide shield for speech of all kinds that as of late has remained as indiscriminant as it is free.

Freedom of Speech

Jamaica’s founding principles of freedom are extensively detailed in the third chapter of its constitution, in which its thirteenth section dictates the following:

“Every person in Jamaica is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, … whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest.” (The Jamaica (Constitution) Order in Council 1962)

This principle of freedom is further explored in terms of expression within sections 21, 22, 23, and 24, which respectively address the protection of the freedoms of conscience, expression, assembly, and the freedom from discriminatory laws. Given this solid basis for the protection of free speech, it is no small wonder that Jamaica is ranked among the top ten free countries in the world. Considering this fact and Jamaica’s relative youth as a nation, no major free speech issues have yet become historic, unless one counts the suppression of black slave speech in its early colony days.

However, that is not to say that Jamaica is completely absolved of having an imperfect free speech policy. In fact, as recently as 2007, the Jamaican people have been speaking out about the country’s libel laws and their outdated nature (Edwards, 2011). In short, the people looking to reform the state’s position on defamatory speech wish to protect it as well as any other kind of public opinion, citing the justification for their reasoning within article 22 of the Jamaica Constitution:

“No person should be hindered in the enjoyment of freedom of expression. This includes freedom to hold opinions, to receive and impart ideas and information by correspondence and other means of communication without interference… Nothing contained in, or done under, the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with, or in, contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision for the purposes of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons.”

Protestors interpret the above as saying that no law can bar a person’s opinion for the sake of saving face, thereby making the punishment of a Jamaican citizen for voicing a negative opinion that might harm another person’s reputation unconstitutional. After a few years’ time, the courts and legislature began to steadily accept the protestors’ position, initially reducing the amount of jail time one could get for defamation from six years to four years until in 2013, defamation was officially decriminalized by Parliament in 2013, making Jamaica the first Caribbean island to abolish criminal libel law (Griffin, 2013). Along with decriminalization, Parliament decided to recognize “the distinction between slander and libel; the reduction of the limitation period for actions from six years to two; replacement of the defense of justification with the defense of truth; the introduction of the defense of innocent dissemination; and a stipulation that damages shall be at the sole discretion of judges, not juries.”  Not only did this landmark decision change the way free speech law is interpreted and acted upon in Jamaica, it has also influenced the country’s island neighbors, such as Antigua and Barbuda, into potentially decriminalizing defamation in the future.

Free Press

Although the Jamaica Constitution never explicitly lists the rights of the press, Jamaica still enjoys a particularly free press due to its firm sections governing free speech and public opinion. And so, with privately owned daily national newspapers, multiple interest periodicals, three television stations, over twenty radio stations, and an increasing amount of unrestricted public internet use, many would correctly assume the best of Jamaica’s press situation (Freedom House). But as with free speech, appearances can be deceiving; while Jamaica enjoys many different outlets for the freedom of the press, it wasn’t until 2002 that the government passed the Access to Information Act, wherein Jamaica reinforced its government accountability, transparency, and public involvement in legislation by making official government information attainable by the general public (The Gleaner, 2015). As one would imagine, this act pleased many journalists, who saw this act as a step in the right direction for government and the press alike; by implementing the act, the government not only gave itself a populace that is more educated in Jamaican affairs, it also gained the public’s trust in becoming more transparent. As for the people of the press, they found their boon in their newfound ability to communicate even more information to the public in their editorials, saying that the law “facilitated the work of journalists as watchdogs of the society.” With the new knowledge of government goings-on readily available online, journalists believed that a new age of journalism in the media was on the rise, and along with it, a Jamaican people that would become increasingly aware of the issues and ever hungrier for truth.

The most recent update in the implementation of the Access to Information Act sees journalists and the public making demands for more information to be declassified by the government via a promise to the Jamaican people that amendments to the Official Secrets Act that bars such access would be made to accomplish their want (Luton, 2015). Four years passed, and nothing was still done about the act besides argument inside Parliament, which caused many people to accuse the government of not caring about the people’s right to know. In contrast, several government officials argue that the information that the public wishes to see is highly sensitive material that could put the state at risk. At any rate, the amendments desired by the populace are not likely to happen in the immediate future, since election season has already begun in Jamaica, although some officials have stated that the changes are slated to occur later in 2016.

Critical Comparison

When one thinks of freedom, the United States usually comes to mind as the trailblazing epitome of personal liberty. However, according to the World Press Freedom Index, the USA is ranked forty places below Jamaica, a position well under those of many of our industrialized, democratic peers (World Press Freedom Index, 2015). But why is that? One thing that stands out in the Index’s analysis of the United States’ transgressions is the amount of injustice journalists face in our country, such as the over-policing of journalists’ sources and government surveillance; meanwhile in Jamaica, there has hardly been an incident of journalistic casualty since 2014 when two journalists received death threats as they were reporting on a murder case. Additionally, hate speech is protected at greater lengths than in the United States, as well as defamatory remarks and unsavory language. As irony would have it, it seems that despite lacking a section in its constitution that specifically ensures the rights of the press, Jamaica is the better country for journalists and free press, as well as having a more universal form of free speech.

While Jamaica is the ideal place for journalists to thrive, it is not necessarily the best for matters of public knowledge that may put the state “at risk.” The situation of the Access to Information Act was turbulent within Jamaica because in a country wherein most everything concerning rights are free, the only thing that the people had wanted was information about the government, specifically, more than had already been shared. This is understandable, but the question that is likely to come up within the next year or two is where to draw the line between ‘free for public use’ and ‘a security threat if this information falls into the wrong hands.’ Such a precarious line is danced along in the infamous Pentagon Papers case of 1971, wherein materials that detailed the United States’ true actions in the Vietnam War were published in the New York Times (376 U.S. 254). In this case, the government lost their argument about the sensitivity of the published materials due to the inadequacy of the term ‘security’ to justify the breach of the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. Therefore, had the AIA been heard on United States soil and decided by the US Supreme Court, there is a reasonably certain possibility that the Jamaican people would have their way and gain access to some if not most of the classified documents.

In terms of free speech, Jamaica wins again. In American speech, and especially in press, it is crucial to be careful with accusations, defamatory remarks, and reckless speech, lest one wind up in court with a libel suit and a sense of retrospective shame. Moreover, in the United States, libel suits are so profitable, celebrity has-beens would search tabloids for hours and hunt down any reason to bring the publisher to court, if only the suits themselves weren’t so time consuming. But in Jamaica, parliament has taken a more logical stance on defamatory remarks. Their reasoning is that in their constitution, all speech is protected without bias as long as it does not interfere with the rights of the offended subject. In general, Jamaica has decriminalized defamation on the grounds that it is often nothing more than playground bullying with bigger, nastier words, although if the words are nasty enough to cause actual damage to a person’s reputation, an appropriate consequence will be given to the offender, which often amounts to nothing more than the equivalent to an apology letter. Thus, by allowing for defamation to be as equally protected as all other aspects of expression, Jamaica is home of the freer speech.

Given Jamaica’s very liberal free speech and free press policies, it is interesting to consider how a landmark United States Supreme Court case such as Near v. Minnesota would fare in its Caribbean courts. Near v. Minnesota comes to mind because it combines both freedoms nicely into a terrible, cringe-worthy celebration of freedom. In the case, a publisher named Near writes a highly anti-Semitic article accusing various government officials of pardoning criminals and acquiescing to their filthy wiles; the government officials then sued for its obscene, defamatory content and upon reaching the state court, obtained injunction against the publisher to enact prior restraint upon Near’s publications, an action which was then ruled by the Supreme Court to be inconsistent with the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and press (283 U.S. 697). The question here is, would the Jamaican Supreme Court concur with the original ruling, or would it deviate from it? With Jamaica’s policy that protects hateful and obscene speech, the Jamaican Supreme Court would most likely rule in favor of Near as well. Like the US Supreme Court, Jamaica would reason that the publisher was within his rights to be inflammatory. Because of this, the enacting of prior restraint upon the paper for its hateful content would be ruled by Jamaica to be unconstitutional, and like in the United States, the ruling of the lower courts would be reversed and the prior restraint would be lifted.


While Jamaica is certainly a beautiful country to which one dreams of escaping, there is much more than aesthetic that the country has to offer. In many ways, Jamaica is much freer than the United States, from its far more protective policies concerning freedom of expression to its kinder treatment and trust in its journalists. But that’s not to say that the United States is a terrible place in which to live; it just needs to start to walk its talk. Ultimately, everyone is as free as they want to be, as long as they don’t know what they’re missing.


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Black, Clinton V. “Jamaica | History – Geography”. Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Campbell, Mavis Christine. The Dynamics Of Change In A Slave Society. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976. Print.

Edwards, Al. “Libel Laws Are Not Only Outdated but Threaten Freedom of Expression — Barnes – Business.” Jamaica Observer News. Jamaica Observer News, 13 May 2011. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Freedom House. “Jamaica.” Jamaica. Freedom House, 2015. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Griffen, Scott. “Jamaica Decriminalises Defamation.” IFEX. IFEX, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

The Gleaner. “Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2015.” Celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2015. The Gleaner, 3 May 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

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The Jamaica (Constitution) Order in Council 1962.

Luton, Daraine. “The Gavel: Secret Gov’t – Administration Ignoring Recommendations for Access to Information Amendments.” The Gavel: Secret Gov’t. The Gleaner, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Near v. Minnesota. 283 U.S. 697. Supreme Court of the United States. 1931. Thomson Reuters WestLaw. Web. 8 Mar 2016.

New York Times v. Sullivan. 376 U.S. 254. Supreme Court of the United States. 1964. Thomson Reuters WestLaw. Web. 8 Mar 2016.

World Press Freedom Index. “2015 World Press Freedom Index.” 2015 World Press Freedom Index. World Press Freedom Index, 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2016.

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