Home Top Stories Reporters Without Borders cite efforts to silence journalists in Guyana
…says threat by officials using legislation to fine, jail reporters still loom
Journalists in Guyana still face hurdles in executing their duties and some of the present laws that the country has implemented can land a journalist in jail despite the Constitution guaranteeing free speech and the right to information.
According to the Reporters Without Borders for freedom of information (RSF), officials often use various pieces of legislation – including defamation laws, which provide for fines and up to two years in jail – to silence opposition journalists.
The RSF website says that “a Cybercrime Bill that was passed into law in July 2018 took into account amendments RSF proposed regarding provisions that could have posed a threat to press freedom if used to penalise journalists for publishing reports deemed critical of the Government or that are based on information from confidential sources. However, the bill remains imperfect. The members of the media regulatory authority are appointed directly by the President”.
According to the media advocacy body, this restricts the freedom of certain media outlets, which are denied licenses and recent attempts to improve regulation of the broadcast industry involved no consultation with any broadcasters.
“Journalists are still subjected to harassment that takes the form of prosecutions, suspensions, and intimidation,” the RSF said.
It added that local journalists may be censored due to editorial or company policies, the threat remains at large that Government officials can use the laws of Guyana to persecute and prosecute journalists if their articles are not “in keeping” with how they wish the publicity to be.
This by itself, is an infringement on the rights of journalists, and in contradiction of Guyana’s Constitution.
However, despite such struggles, the country has been able to elevate itself from the 55 position in 2018 in the World Press Freedom Index to 51 position in its 2019 report.
Presently, there are 180 countries which are mentioned in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index and while Guyana has moved up four notches in comparison to last year, it added that much more work is to be done that will allow local reporters and journalists the freedom to publicise stories that are fair and accurate without bias or fear being incited.
Last year, despite concerns being expressed that the measures included in clause 18 of the Cybercrime Bill of 2016 could be used to silence critics, Government was initially unmoved, and was, in fact, insisting that the measure is for national security.
According to clause 18, persons commit an offence of sedition when they, “attempt to bring into hatred or excite disaffection towards the Government”.
After much public outcry and criticism from the media, the controversial Cybercrime Bill was passed in National Assembly on July 20, 2018, with several amendments, including the removal of the clause on sedition.
However, the Opposition – People’s Progressive Party – noted that the words may have changed, but the Bill still threatens civil liberties.
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.