VIENNA, Austria -- A year after becoming the first Caribbean country to decriminalise libel, the International Press Institute (IPI) said that Grenada last week appeared to take a step in the opposite direction by approving a sweeping cyber-crimes bill that includes a provision for online defamation.
According to the Electronic Crimes Act 2013, those found guilty of “sending offensive messages through [electronic] communication services, etc.” face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to EC$100,000 (US$37,000 / €28,000). In addition to the undefined “offensive” language, the law also covers information known to be false that is intended to cause, among others, "annoyance, inconvenience, insult, or ill-will."
The law appears intended to address defamation not only via social media, but also via user-generated content on news websites, usually in “comment sections.” These sections, which can be important avenues for average citizens to express opinions, have become controversial in the Caribbean and elsewhere as a forum for the proliferation of potentially libellous of even inciteful material.
Grenada’s minister for legal affairs, Elvin Nimrod, argued that the law was necessary “to protect society, especially those who are vulnerable to modern technology.”
IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie
“IPI absolutely appreciates that the advent of social media and the proliferation of user-generated comment have presented challenges for protecting the right to reputation. But we are disappointed that the Grenadian government has chosen to enact a new criminal law as a response, especially since just last year the government agreed with IPI that civil litigation, not criminal action, is appropriate for handling libel and defamation cases,” IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
She added: “Any additional law aimed at regulating this type of content is not only superfluous but also threatens to limit press freedom beyond what is necessary in a democratic society.”
Shere-Ann Noel, president of the Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG), an affiliate of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, told IPI that she did not think the law would prove to be a “hindrance to freedom of expression” to journalists on the island. But, she added, the law would affect “a couple of people” who practice anonymous, mean-spirited posting that has bedeviled media houses.
Although media companies are generally considered liable for such user-generated comments, there is as yet no internationally agreed upon standard for the self-regulation of online comment sections. IPI believes that news sites have a responsibility to remove libellous content as fast as reasonably possible and that any legal action should be conscious of the need for this reasonable ‘grace period’ for removal. Other self-regulatory mechanisms can include registration requirements and codes of conduct with which users must agree.
In July 2012, Grenada’s Parliament approved a reform to the country’s criminal code that removed libel as a criminal offence, though sections referring to “seditious libel” and insult of the sovereign were maintained. On that occasion, then-Attorney General Rohan A. Phillip explained to IPI that having criminal libel on the books constituted a “formal hindrance to freedom of expression and of the press.” Following the reform’s passage, IPI’s Executive Board sent a congratulatory letter to the government.
Earlier this year, Phillip’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) party was swept out of office in national elections by the New National Party (NNP), with former Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell (1995-2008) assuming his previous office.
Mitchell, during his previous time as head of government, was noted for having an uneasy relationship with the press. In 1999, George Worme, then editor of Grenada Today, was arrested and charged with criminal libel after writing an editorial that accused Mitchell of bribery. The case ultimately reached the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, which ruled that Section 252 amounted to a reasonable restriction on the freedom of expression guarantees provided in the Grenadian Constitution.
In addition to cyber-defamation, the Electronic Crimes Act 2013 also covers child pornography, electronic stalking, unauthorised access, and “electronic terrorism”, the latter apparently referring to cyberattacks and denials of service
However, given the ongoing public debate and expressed concerns, the government said in a subsequent statement that it is very likely that what passes finally into law will have adjustments.
Mitchell has reportedly asked his legislative team to review all sections of the bill to ensure that it remains consistent with his commitment of not just protecting open debate and dialogue, but to reflect the new commitment to broaden patterns of democracy that will be reflective in other upcoming legislation.