Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves (File photo: Kingsley Roberts/Facebook)

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has responded to concerns by the international press freedom watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) regarding certain elements of the Cybercrime Bill now before Parliament.

Gonsalves said that before receiving the letter, changes had already been made to Clause 16 of the Bill, about which RSF, like local press freedom advocates, have expressed concern.

In a July 29 letter copied to Minister of Information, Camillo Gonsalves, Delphine Halgand, RSF’s US Director, called for the revision of several clauses of the bill, which RSF said “are extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate”.

Halgand said RSF believes the Internet should not escape the authority of the law altogether and believe 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.

“However, we regard some of the clauses in this bill extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate,” the group said making reference to Section 16 (2), which incorporates criminal libel that is already a criminal offence in section 274 of the Criminal Code.

RSF is opposed to criminal libel, but Gonsalves supports it.

Halgand noted that 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” can be sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment and/or pay a fine of EC$200,000 (One EC dollar =US$0.37 cents).

RSF asked “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.”

But in his July 29 response, Prime Minister Gonsalves said that “substantial amendments” to the Bill have already been made at the Select Committee and its report to Parliament will reflect these amendments.

“Clause 16 of which you have expressed concern was already amended prior to your letter to me, and has been further reviewed consequent upon your intervention, but I am not sure that all your queries have been addressed to your satisfaction. You will see the final product in due course,” Gonsalves said, but did not elaborate on the specific changes that have been made.

RSF is opposed to criminal libel, but Gonsalves has been ardent in his support for keeping it on the law books, a point Gonsalves reiterated in his letter, saying:

“I do not share the view that the offence of ‘criminal defamation’ has ‘a chilling effect on freedom of press and freedom of expression’. I understand RSF’s position, but I consider it to be wrong in our circumstances.”

Gonsalves said he has held this view on criminal defamation for over 48 years as a political activist — in opposition and in government, as a defence and “human rights” lawyer of 34 years standing, and as “a tireless fighter for freedom of expression, justice, fairness, and a judicious balancing of rights and responsibilities.

“The offence of criminal defamation is not a fetter on professional, independent journalists; certainly, this has not been the case in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But it protects citizens who may be the subject of deliberate defamation by irresponsible men and women of straw who have absolutely no means to satisfy a monetary judgment awarded in a case of civil defamation: It protects, too, society; and it certainly aids peace, tranquillity, and non-violent responses by victims of defamation. In any event, the Director of Public Prosecutions is the explicit gate-keeper in any prosecution for this offence; clearly, only the most egregious cases would attract his prosecutorial attention.”

RSF

In his letter, Gonsalves said the Bill is a common piece of legislation that was drafted through “the appropriate regional mechanisms” for consideration by member-states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.

He said the proposed law is part and parcel of “a raft of legislative measures touching and concerning certain electronic and internet activities, some of which have already been enacted”.

Gonsalves said that since 2013 there have been consultations with the private and public sectors in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on this Bill by the regional drafters.

He told RSF that the Cybercrime Bill has been subjected to “informed scrutiny” by the relevant officials in the State administration, the general public, and a Parliamentary Select Committee.

He noted that the bill was published in the print media in SVG and online and electronic copies were made available to civil society organisations and personalities upon request.

“Comments by the general public were invited. Indeed, several written submissions were made to the Office of the Honourable Attorney General. These submissions, including two by independent journalists, have been circulated to the Select Committee for its consideration; so, too, has your letter.”

He noted that six members of the Government’s side in Parliament, including the Attorney General, who is a public servant, were named to the Select Committee but that the Opposition’s did not name anyone to the select Committee.

Gonsalves also told the RSF that the Select Committee has invited several persons to appear before, and sit with it, to consider the Cybercrime Bill in detail.

These include representatives from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission; public servants from the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information; the Director of Public Prosecutions and staff; the President and Vice President of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Bar Association; the President of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Chamber of Industry and Commerce; and the Political Leader of the Democratic Republican Party.

“The Select Committee has had several lengthy meetings on the Bill; it is conducting a detailed clause-by-clause examination of the Bill. The Select Committee is scheduled to report to Parliament on August 4, 2016, for further debate and possible passage,” Gonsalves said.

9 replies on “PM Gonsalves responds to RSF’s concerns about Cybercrime Bill”

  1. Jeannine James says:

    So why did Gonsalves have his son come out with the farcical public explanation about how the bill’s primary focus was to protect children and minors on line from cybercrime?

    Why did he trot out Francis to explain that the bill was aimed at people who post online untruths about members of government?

    And the Select Committee, why is it so tightly composed of family members and wobbling elements who dare not countermand his wishes?

    Why was the draft not subject to broader-based scrutiny before he adapted the wording to cater to his fragility and sense of self?

    This guy operates like a dinosaur and is moving like his “subjects” are all adoring idiots. Outside of the restricted core of signed-on yes men and apologists for his every outrage, he has shown little interest in empowering or even impressing the people of SVG in any wholesome way. Look out for him trying a stroke soon to see if he could come off like a liberal, impartial man who is acting in the interest of all Vincentians regardless of their right to choose by vote. Look out for him. He will need to appear to recover from some of this most recent dog and pony show that he has put on.

    Trickery has been his forte from the outset and the people, in our indolence, have lapped it up for years and allowed it to thrive without hindrance. He is probably more of an uncle tom in the global arena than the average. Were he himself not such a threat to practical democracy and such a blight, it would be easy to feel sorry for him. A real disappointment.

    Yes, defamation is possible but, sadly, in the context of Gonsalves, it becomes a practical oxymoron. He talks about the public service. What public service? The same one that he has caused, individual by individual, to abdicate from its public trust that he has never lifted a finger to preserve as much as he has his own personal vanity?

    Then he goes on about his AG and the DPP as gatekeeper. Now, there’s another good hoot. All I can say is that he ran this one up the flagpole but it did not get the usual salute. Even so, he bears watching for he is not yet near done. The stakes must be very high.

    1. C. ben-David says:

      Too bad neither of us are in SVG to help organize a protest against this wicked legislation.

      If this passes, my days as an Argyle airport critic are toast.

  2. C. ben-David says:

    Criminal libel (as opposed to extreme seditious statements) has no place in a free society if only because civil law is either or can be crafted to include criminal penalties for non-payment of civil liabilities. On the other hand, the libellous statements of paupers — those without
    the means to pay a civil penalty — should simply be ignored or laughed at, as they now our in our little gossip-ridden land.

  3. skeckpalmer says:

    Kenton you can help by putting a survey out to get the Vincentian public feedback on this bill. I know you are scared shit, but this is a safe way to get involved without being victimized.

    1. Brown Boy USA says:

      I agree with this idea of the survey. Do a survey to get the feedback of the Vincentian public. That would be interested.

  4. Sounds like a certain leader is very insecure and at the same time very deceptive. These are certainly signs of a weak character and therefore a poor leader.

  5. Watching Hard says:

    I really don’t get this response to the RSF’s concerns. What kind of response is this? So the people who are least likely to be able to pay damages for defamation will be the ones prosecuted and sent to jail? Does he realise that this is effectively targeting the most powerless people in society and criminalising them? So who can afford will pay damages and who can’t will go to jail. Once again the poor gets the shitty end of the stick.

    If a person is no credible threat sometimes we just need to allow them to vent. After all in SVG where no one gets any real recourse for anything, that is their only outlet apart from the ballot box every five years. Let them vent, it won’t kill you.

    So only the most egregious cases will be prosecuted? And we leave that determination up to a politically appointed official to make? We know what is egregious is just a matter of opinion right? Real progressive PM. Real progressive.

    By the way how many public prosecutions have we had under our present laws for criminal defamation in respect of private people who have been defamed. Anybody knows?

  6. Ralph Gonsalves mentions that this bill has been made public for public scrutiny. What he does not say is that the people are overwhelmingly against it. It appears that he feels that since he has presented the bill beforehand, that is all he needs in order to pass it, regardless of the vast majority of people against it. Is it still a Democracy when one man has all the power and can force his will on the people, by taking even more of their rights?

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