Monk pardon should signal the end of criminal libel
The recent decision by John Rankin, the Governor — at the request of David Burt, the Premier — to give the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk a full pardon for his conviction for criminal libel rights an historic wrong and sets an important precedent for the future.
Mr Monk was an African Methodist Episcopalian Church minister for the West End and also editor of a newspaper called the New Era at the time he was tried and convicted in 1901.
He was tried because he was alleged to have libelled a company contracted to expand the Royal Naval Dockyard at the turn of the century. The company had hired several hundred workers from the Caribbean to do the work, but on arrival they found their accommodations were slum-like or worse, and their pay was far less than promised. In addition, it was clear that the work was dangerous. At least two workers died in accidents on the site.
Mr Monk reported on this and as a result, was arrested and charged with criminal libel, a criminal charge now widely considered to be archaic and unjust. Further, it is an accepted principle of libel law that you can defame only an individual, not a company or an institution. And no individual ever brought a libel suit against Mr Monk.
His trial was rife with problems. The judge and the prosecutor were father and son. Bermuda had an even smaller population at the turn of the 20th century than it does today, and even now Bermuda makes exceptions for conflicts of interest, which would be unacceptable in other countries. Nonetheless, the closeness of this relationship raised eyebrows even then.
More seriously, Mr Monk’s lawyer, a King’s Counsel from Jamaica, died the day before the trial was due to begin, and Mr Monk opted to represent himself — never a wise decision.
Despite that, Mr Monk conducted a vigorous defence, producing 200 witnesses to the Crown’s two — and even they were not very convincing — who corroborated his reporting.
After the longest trial in Bermuda’s history, Mr Monk was convicted. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise. The jury was hardly made up of his peers, but primarily of white Bermudians who would have been broadly in sympathy with the prosecution. Even then, the verdict was not unanimous, but a majority.
Mr Monk was imprisoned for six months, which had a disastrous effect on his reputation in Bermuda. He soldiered on in the church and with his newspaper, but when the House of Assembly threatened a further libel suit, he had enough and left the island with his family, settling in Philadelphia. He rarely spoke of Bermuda again.
Despite that, there were ramifications for Bermuda. The next chief justice came from outside of the island, and not from the small clique that ran Bermuda’s affairs.
It is clear today that Mr Monk should never have been tried and that he was innocent.
Mr Burt recognised the importance of the media being free to speak out and to make known abuses without fear of imprisonment when he welcomed the pardon.
But the Premier should go one step farther. The offence of criminal libel remains in the Bermuda Criminal Code and has been used much more recently than 1900, including against this newspaper, in spite of it being widely held to be an anachronism.
Mr Burt could cement his legacy as a defender of civil rights if he initiated the move, in Mr Monk’s memory, to abolish this section of the Criminal Code.
This does not mean that individuals would lose the right to defend their reputations or to seek damages where their reputations had been damaged. Any person who felt they had been defamed could still go to a civil court to bring a case against the alleged defamer and to seek damages. That should not change.
But an individual should not run the risk of being imprisoned simply for writing something that has the possibility of damaging a reputation. That has a chilling effect on people’s willingness to speak out — even when they are certain of their facts.
That in turn limits freedom of speech, which lies at the heart of any democracy.
Criminal libel has passed its sell-by date.