Published On: Thu, Apr 20th, 2017


Minister Emil Lee was justly irritated about an article on the SMN-News gossip website because it does not contain a grain of truth. Given the site’s reputation, that is not surprising. Minister Lee called on “the industry” to establish guidelines, but that call will not do anything to change the habits of outlets that have no respect for the truth.

The established media on St. Maarten already function in a proper way, though of course they also make mistakes. That is okay, everyone makes mistakes, but what matters is how you deal with them.

New guidelines for the established industry are pointless. There is already a code of conduct for journalists, established in 1954 by the International Federation of Journalists in 1954. That code is still as valid today as it was almost 65 years ago. There is no need to add anything to it.

With the rise of social media and the internet the media landscape has drastically changed. Every nut with a computer and internet access is able to distribute his personal nonsense at will. Code of conduct? Never heard of.

It is therefore an illusion to think that guidelines that the established media already follow will do anything to change the behavior of rogue media outlets.

The question is therefore: what to do about these outlets?

The law offers options to act against publications – be it on paper or electronically – that unjustly damage interests or reputations.

In the case at hand, one could argue that the article is damaging to the reputation of Minister Lee. The gossip website article accuses him of committing $200,000 to marketing efforts for a Canadian airline – peanuts in the big scheme of things – without authorization.

Such accusations could also cause economic damages. It could erode the trust between Sunwing executives and country St. Maarten. It could lead to fewer flights from Canada, while the economic impact of just one flight is around $13 million according to IATA data.

So there is personal injury and (potential) economic damage, all resulting from an article with distorted information.

We’re the last one to deny anyone the right to publish whatever tickles their fancy. But we are also of the opinion that wrongdoing in this field must have consequences.

Therefore, if the Minister went to civil court with a complaint, he could demand several things and stand a good chance of getting his full pound of flesh out of it.

The first demand could be for a rectification in a format suggested by the minister and approved by the court.

The second demand could be a ban on further publications based on the same erroneous information under threat of a financial penalty.

The third demand could be for financial compensation of economic damages. Such a claim would have to be substantiated of course, otherwise it won’t fly.

The fourth demand could be for personal compensation based on defamation. In our justice system the court will never return a huge verdict, but this is not a matter of money, it is a matter of establishing through an independent judge that a publication was wrongful and defaming.

And there is yet another course of action possible: an investigation into the question whether the website, by publishing erroneous information, is violating the terms of service of the internet provider that enables the site to distribute its nonsense.

But at the end of the day, the reality is that fighting these kinds of battles cost a lot of energy. And even if you win, the result is seldom satisfying.