Home Top Stories Bill remains a naked attack against free speech – Opposition
Amended Cyber Crime Bill
…puts whistleblower legislation in jeopardy
…passed amid fiery exchange
After a massive outcry sparked by the sedition clause, Government amended two clauses and on Friday returned the Cyber Crime Bill of 2016 to the National Assembly, but, according to the Opposition, the words may have changed, but the Bill still threatens civil liberties.
The debate over the Cyber Crime Bill began with Attorney General Basil Williams, in whose name it is being presented, touting the importance of the Bill. He cited the development of the Internet component of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector, which provides criminals with avenues to perpetrate crime.
He noted that it was feared that Guyana, due to the absence of cybercrime legislation, would become a safe haven for such criminals. The Minister also related that following public consultations on the Bill, amendments were made to the legislation.
“Public consultations on the Bill were held at the Pegasus Hotel on March 16, 2016. Suggestions and comments were made by stakeholders, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Guyana Revenue Authority, Rights of the Child Commission, Global Technology, Red Thread and Guyana Bar Association; were considered, and necessary changes effected to the Bill.”
But the parliamentary Opposition was unimpressed, especially as it contended that Clause 18’s amendments can be used by the Government to stamp out dissidents and thus, remained as dangerous as ever. Successive Opposition speakers took the Government to task for Clause 18. The Opposition’s point person on security, Clement Rohee, expressed concern over the fact that Clause 18 (1a) allows for criminal penalties for anyone who “advocates the use, without authority of law, of force as a means of accomplishing a governmental change within Guyana”.
“The language in the amendment is aimed at misleading us into believing that the Government has softened up or removed the offending clauses, when this is certainly not the case. The Minister told us of consultations, but what he failed to tell us was what came out of those consultations.”
“The Bill places tremendous power in the hands of the Government. The Attorney General, the Ministers of Information, Communications and Public Security… the offending clauses places tremendous authority in the hands of these Ministers. Reference has been made in the public domain in the context of sedition,” he said.
Rohee expressed fears that persons who are disaffected by the Government and decide to stage protests will be targeted and jailed using this very clause. It is a contention backed up by his colleague, Nigel Dharamlall, who questioned why the Government was so fearful of criticism.
“Why is the Government so fearful of persons in the public expressing their views?” he asked. “We have a repressive bill, which the Government without conscience wants passed … a law which increases surveillance on people. Civil society has an integral role to play in this. This bill affects human rights.” Opposition Member of Parliament Harry Gill noted that the Government continuously presented flawed bills to the National Assembly, with the Cyber Crime Bill being the latest. He cited the fact that Clause 18 (1e) criminalises persons who “excite or attempts to excite ethnic division among the people of Guyana or hostility or ill-will against any person or class of persons on the ground of race”.
Attack on free speech
In a strong condemnation of the amendments, Opposition parliamentarian, Dr Frank Anthony stressed that except for superficial changes to the Bill meant to pacify critics, the intent of the law still remained one that suppresses free speech.
“Did they go far enough? Because they dropped the word sedition and a few words here and there, but the substance of what can be done by this provision still remains… the fact remains that the Guyanese people are still going to be short-changed. One of the beauties of the Internet is that it allows for freedom of speech. And while that freedom is not unlimited, there must be an extraordinary reason why it should be breached.”
“The imposition of Article 18 is an apparent attempt to muzzle the citizens of this country! The way they have defined the definition is that the Government offended by a citizen’s remarks get to decide what constitutes that disaffection and then apply its subjective interpretation to punish the offending citizens with five years’ imprisonment. It is a naked attack against our rights to freedom of expression.”
Upon his return, Williams stressed the need for the Bill to be passed. Referring to the need for protection from the “barbarians at the gate”, the Attorney General noted that the Bill was a strong measure against terrorism. The Bill was eventually passed, with Williams moving to adopt the report of the Special Select Committee. The Bill
Laid in the National Assembly since 2016, the Cyber Crime Bill had catered for, inter alia: illegal access to a computer system; illegal interception; illegal data interference; illegal acquisition of data; illegal system interference; unauthorised receiving or granting of access to computer data; computer-related forgery; computer-related fraud; offences affecting critical infrastructure; identity-related offences; child pornography; child luring, and violation of privacy among a slew of other offences.
Previously, section 18 (1a) of the Bill had stated that persons commit an offence of sedition when they “attempt to bring into hatred or excite disaffection towards the Government”.
Section 18 (1) now states that “A person commits an offence if the person, whether in or out of Guyana, intentionally publishes, transmits or circulates by use of a computer system, a statement or words, either spoken or written, a text, video, image, sign, visible representation or other thing that (a) advocates the use without authority of law of force as a means of accomplishing a governmental change within Guyana.”
The amended section goes on to state that the law also criminalises anyone who “incites, counsels, urges, induces, aids or abets any person to commit, participate in the commission of or to conspire with another person to commit treason under section 314 or 317 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act.”
Breaking this law, according to the amended section, carries a penalty on conviction on indictment of imprisonment for five years.
Meanwhile, the amended Clause nine of the Cyber Crime Bill states: “A person commits an offence who, through authorised or unauthorised means, obtains or accesses electronic data which (c) is stored on a computer system and is protected against unauthorised access.”
The penalty on summary conviction is a fine of $3 million and imprisonment of three years, while conviction on indictment earns the accused a fine of $8 million and five years’ imprisonment. (Jarryl Bryan)