The Cybercrime Bill that is being debated in Parliament today (Thursday) is good for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told lawmakers and media audiences as he began debate on the controversial piece of legislation.
Gonsalves, who introduced the bill in Parliament on May 31, when it was sent to a select committee, said that the Bill legislation is not a partisan political one.
He told Parliament that as a lawyer of 35 years’ experience who has been dealing with freedom of expression matters in the court, he is satisfied that the Bill “not only passes constitutional muster, but it is also sound law for our people”.
He further said the bill is not his handiwork, explaining that it is a regional effort under the HIPCAR project (Enhancing Competitiveness in the Caribbean through the Harmonisation of ICT Policies, Legislation and Regulatory Procedures), which has resulted in several pieces of legislation.
The HIPCAR Project was conceived by the ITU, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat and the Caribbean Telecommunication union (CTU) in response to requests from CARICOM states and other ICT stakeholders who saw the need for a more unified approach to the subject.
Gonsalves said several bills, some of which were passed before the 2015 general elections and some after then, have come out of the initiative.
“This is not a political bill. It is not a partisan political bill. And when I saw the final draft which several countries have passed, either in this form or somewhat amended form, I said I would like to see some changes to this,” he said, adding that he therefore recommended that the Bill be sent to a select committee.
He noted that former attorney general Parnell Campbell, QC has said publicly that he saw nothing wrong with the bill in its original form.
Gonsalves, however, said that he thought the bill should have been sent to a select committee and asked for submission from members of the public.
He said these submissions include three from practicing journalists and others who do journalistic work — including the editors of iWitness News and Searchlight newspaper.
But several regional and international press freedom agencies have also expressed concerned about the Bill.
Gonsalves said their comments, some of which were similar, were also submitted to the select committee.
He said that while he takes their submissions into account, he is responsible to the Parliament rather than these organisations, but take account of what they say because he is also part of the global civilisation.
The Prime Minister told Parliament that while looking at a Bill, he does not count the number but rather the quality of the submissions that he get from overseas.
He said he also takes into account the quality of Vincentians’ opinions, but not only of those who shout, but also the large number who he said have come and spoken to him
“This Bill has come out of select committee, I believe, a bill which is good for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, good for the people, and a bill which is within the four walls of Section 10 of the Constitution, relating to the protection of freedom of expression,” he said.
Gonsalves said the Bill deals with a series of offences, ranging from illegal access to computer data, to child pornography and spam and spoofing, adding that he asked the Clerk of the House of Assembly to circulate the revised Bill on Monday so that members of the opposition and other persons could see the changes.
He noted that a clause that would have allowed for electronic surveillance was excluded completely, adding that Minister of Information, Camillo Gonsalves led the debate in this regard.
The Prime Minister said that he heard it being said that the Bill restricts people’s freedom to express themselves.
“We have a lot of laws on the books which restrict people’s complete freedom, that is to say, freedom to the point of licence, and nobody has said they are unconstitutional,” Gonsalves said.
He mentioned among these offences in the Criminal Code, uttering seditious words; printing and publishing seditious material; publication of false news likely to cause fear or alarm in or among the public; defamation of foreign personages (such as defamation of an ambassador in a such manner to cause ruptures between the two states); threatening violence; threat of injury to person in the Public Service; false swearing; perjury; writing or uttering words with intention to wound religious feelings; criminal libel; and using abusive, blasphemous, indecent, insulting, or profane language
“You have freedom to talk but you can’t just talk any and everything,” Gonsalves said.
He said the Bill is taking place in a political environment, adding that he has spent his entirely life defending people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression.
“But I don’t support license of expression; I support freedom of expression,” Gonsalves said.
He told Parliament that when the New Democratic Party administration passed Section 64 of the Criminal Code — which criminalises publishing statements likely to cause fear and alarm, then publisher of The Vincentian, Edgerton Richards, hired him to test the constitutionality of the law.
The court, however, ruled in favour of the government, and the Court of Appeal upheld the decision.
Gonsalves said that the use of the word “fear” in any law has been sanctioned at the Court of Appeal.
Some critics of the Bill have said that “fear” is a subjective term.
He noted that a lot of discussion has been focused around Clause 7, which criminalises illegal access to date.
But the Prime Minister said this section has been adjusted to include a public interest defence.
“In other words, there is whistleblowing protection in Clause 7,” he said but noted that this does not apply to access to information about people’s personal health or national security matters.
He further noted that Clause 23, which provided for wiretapping, was removed.
The Prime Minister said he had made the point that he will not introduce wiretapping legislation unless it is has unanimous support among lawmakers.
Persons are widely waiting to hear the response of the opposition, which did not attend the select committee meetings, but has indicated that it will oppose the Bill.
A handful of opposition supporters has gathered in Kingstown to protest the bill.
The debate continues.