Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves
By Caribbean News Now contributor
WASHINGTON, USA — International press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday called for the revision of several clauses in a cybercrime bill currently being debated in parliament in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) that it described as extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate.
In a letter to Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves and Minister of Information Camillo Gonsalves, the US director of RSF, Delphine Halgand, noted that Section 16 (2) of Part II of the bill incorporates criminal libel, which is already a criminal offence in Section 274 of the criminal code.
RSF considers criminal defamation to have a chilling effect on freedom of the press and freedom of expression and has repeatedly urged countries to decriminalize this offence.
Further, Section 16 (3) states: “A person who, intentionally or recklessly uses a computer system to disseminate any information, statement or image; and exposes the private affairs of another person, thereby subjecting that other person to public ridicule, contempt, hatred or embarrassment, commits an offence.” Offenders can be sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment and/or pay a fine of EC$200,000 (US$74,000).
“Under what criteria can information be considered to expose ‘private affairs’ of another person regardless of factual accuracy (which this subsection refrains from mentioning)? This provision could very easily constitute an obstacle to the dissemination of information of public interest. It could, for example, provide any demonstrably corrupt public figure with a strong argument for refusing to be held accountable,” Halgand wrote.
Clause 16 also defines cyberbullying as using “a computer system repeatedly or continuously to convey information which causes fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other harm to another person; or detriment to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”
“This language remains subjective and could be broadly interpreted in a manner that negatively impacts the free flow of information,” Halgand said.
While not disputing that the internet should not escape the authority of the law altogether and that it is perfectly legitimate to sanction such crimes and offences as the theft of documents or data, online identity theft, cyberbullying or, even more serious, child pornography, RSF is also concerned about the range of the bill’s applicability.
Specifically, Clause 31 of Part III states that “an act [constituting an offence] is carried out in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines if the effect of the act, or the damage resulting from the act, occurs within Saint Vincent and the Grenadines”.
“Here again, the lack of precision about the nature of the effect to which this clause refers could result in significant obstacles to freedom of information.
“The danger posed by these provisions is, in our view, all the greater because the law gives the police and judicial authorities a great deal of scope to access the personal data of someone who is being investigated.
“For all these reasons, we urge you not to pass this bill into law in its present form and to amend the most sensitive clauses. We also urge you to amend the criminal code in order to de-criminalize defamation,” Halgand concluded.
Earlier this week, Anesia Baptiste, the leader of the Democratic Republican Party in SVG, also condemned and called for immediate removal of clause 16 of the cybercrime bill.
“Clause 16 of the bill has two main features that are dangerous to God-given and constitutionally guaranteed human freedoms of expression, speech, the press and information,” Baptiste said.
She also noted that criminal libel is an antiquated and draconian law that uses the disproportionate punishment of imprisonment for publishing wrong speech (speech that is false).
“While criminal libel has been on our criminal code for many years, it’s true, it has fallen into disuse because such laws have a chilling effect on free speech and have been used by tyrants in old times to punish political opponents and dissenters,” Baptiste said.
“Libel or defamation is proportionately addressed in a civil and not a criminal court, since to criminalize a man’s speech, giving a man a criminal record, sending a man to jail for words puts the right to free speech itself in jeopardy. It sends a message of fear and self-censorship among journalists and regular citizens, which is destructive to society’s need to hold government’s accountable,” she continued.
Baptiste pointed out that cyberbullying as defined in the bill will criminalize the truth published by anyone using a computer system, which causes a person “fear, intimidation… or causes “detriment to health, self-esteem, etc.”
“Not only are these words vague, subjective and lacking legal certainty and therefore not meeting the standard requirement of properly drafted law, but their broadness also means that the section can give rise to abuse by prosecuting and judicial authorities and the very truth can be criminalized, just because someone claims that its publishing via a computer system ‘causes’ them to feel any of the above,” she said.