Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. (IWN File Photo)

By Kenton X. Chance

Parliament on Friday passed the Cybercrime Bill into law amidst arguments by opposition lawmakers as well as regional and international press freedom advocates that the legislation will have a chilling effect on free speech.

Just minor typographical amendments were made just before the vote at the end of two days of debate on the bill that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves tabled on May 31, when the draft was sent to a select committee, which met eight times to review it.

“Mr. Speaker, this is, as I’ve said before, a necessary and desirable piece of legislation. It is not unconstitutional. It passes constitutional muster, and it is good for the society,” Gonsalves said as he responded to the debate.

The Prime Minister rejected opposition claims that the legislation is intended to protect him and his party from online criticism.

“Mr. Speaker, I have heard a lot of things said about me here — or intimated about me. I just want to say certain things. I, as a human being, I have rights of privacy. I also have a right not to be falsely accused. I also have a right to due process. I have a right that my reputation be protected. But this bill is not about these things, because all of those rights which each of us possesses, is guaranteed for us under the Constitution of 1979,” Gonsalves said.

He added: “I do not need Cybercrime Bill for that and I do not need Cybercrime Bill to protect any of those rights for me because there are existing laws which can do that.

“But this is not about Ralph. It’s about a range of other persons who require especially protection and a society requires protection in relation to a range of matters relating to fraud by the internet, protect critical infrastructure, for the computer system, and so on and so forth, and, as I have read out before, … the wrongs which are intended to be met by this legislation.”

He further rejected the opposition’s claim that the Bill was a continuation of his Unity Labour Party administration’s efforts to bully its critics.

Gonsalves said that all international assessors have ranked St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) among the freest and most democratic nations.

Persons sit in the Strangers Gallery during the first day of the debate on Thursday. (IWN photo)
Persons sit in the Strangers Gallery during the first day of the debate on Thursday. (IWN photo)

Among these, he mentioned the World Bank, the Heritage Organisation, and Reporters Without Border (RSF), which had written to him expressing concern about the bill and was among press freedom watchdogs issuing a joint statement expressing “alarm” after the Bill became law.

Gonsalves said the international organisations he mentioned have assessed the press in SVG to be freer than in the United States and Britain, although criminal libel remains on the law books in SVG.

He told Parliament and media audiences that some of the sections that the opposition sought to impute are more favourable than the existing legislation.

Among these, he mentioned section 18, which criminalises harassment by electronic communication.

Gonsalves said that the opposition wants to use others things as a political battering ram against him and have opposed the bill as part of this effort.

“But they have missed it completely. They have missed the spot.”

To illustrate, Gonsalves said that if someone makes a statement threatening him, menacing him, and causes him to feel intimidated and threatened, a charge can be brought against them. “But, because I am Prime Minister, in the process, you may well say something which is seditious because the consequences of it may be seditious,” Gonsalves said and noted that he was not referring to any particular case.

Under section 53 of the Criminal Code, a person who commits such an offence can be jailed for five years.

Gonsalves said that under the cybercrime legislation, such a person can also he charged with harassment by electronic communication, the penalty of which is one year in prison, a fine of EC$25,000, or both.

“In this Bill which is supposed to be so draconian. You see why it is not about me,” Gonsalves said.

He said that in Jamaica, a similar offence attracts a fine of about US$40,000, adding that in SVG, it is only a summary offence, while in Jamaica, the penalty at indictment is 10 years in prison.

Further, in Jamaica, a repeat offender can go to jail for 20 years.

“That’s on the book in Jamaica and there’s not a squeak.”

Gonsalves told Parliament that the bill is not a criminal libel bill, but repeats the offence of criminal libel in the law in precisely the same terms, including the defences available in the Criminal Code for criminal libel.

He said that all of the sections of the Bill that deal with ex parte applications are consistent with the Budapest Convention — the first international treaty seeking to address internet and computer crime by harmonising national laws, improving investigative techniques, and increasing cooperation among nations.

The bill that became law was a revised draft sent to SVG under the HIPCAR project (Enhancing Competitiveness in the Caribbean through the Harmonisation of ICT Policies, Legislation and Regulatory Procedures).

The revisions were made by a select committee of Parliament, in which the opposition did not participate.

Leader of the Democratic Republic Party, Anesia Baptiste, centre, her husband, Calvert Baptiste, left, and Leader of the SVG Green Party, Ivan O'neil sit in the Strangers' Gallery on Thursday, the first day of thedebate.
Leader of the Democratic Republic Party, Anesia Baptiste, centre, her husband, Calvert Baptiste, left, and Leader of the SVG Green Party, Ivan O’Neil sit in the Strangers’ Gallery on Thursday, the first day of the debate.

Leader of the small Democratic Republic Party, Anesia Baptiste, who Minister of Information, Camillo Gonsalves invited to participate in the committee, championed opposition to the bill and described the select committee as a clique of the Prime Minister and members of his party and family.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement issued shortly after the bill became law, four international organisations defending freedom of the press and access to information, said they are “deeply concerned” by the cybercrime law.

Several provisions of this bill pose a serious threat to freedom of the press, the free flow of online information, and public debate,” said the statement issued by RSF, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the International Press Institute (IPI).

The statement noted that defamation in print, written and broadcast media is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment under SVG’s penal code, pre-dating the adoption of the Cybercrime Law, adding that the new legislation extends criminal defamation to online content.

“In addition to broadening criminal defamation to include online expression, the law also introduces worryingly vague and subjective definitions of cyber-harassment and cyber-bullying, both of which are punishable by imprisonment.

“The negative value and chilling effect that criminal defamation places on freedom of expression and of the press have been well noted at the local, regional and international level, and states have been repeatedly called on to abolish criminal defamation laws. The issue of criminal defamation has particular importance in the Caribbean, where a similar law was adopted in Grenada in 2013 and subsequently amended after international outcry. Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana are currently considering similar legislation now under critical review by national, regional, and international stakeholders,” the statement said.

It added: “The steps taken today in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to strengthen criminal defamation laws and stifle online dissent and discussion could reverse the positive legislative trend in the Caribbean and serve as a negative example for Saint Vincent’s regional neighbours. It is therefore our view that the law as adopted today must be revised and criminal defamation must be abolished, and we urge the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to do so as soon as possible.”

PM tells Parliament Cybercrime Bill is good for St. Vincent

9 replies on “Press freedom groups express ‘alarm’ as SVG passes Cybercrime Bill”

  1. Peter Binose, whoever you are, you have just criminally libelled the Prime Minister of SVG and his government. You can run but you can’t hide.

  2. Jeannine James says:

    Ah! So the dinosaur peruses (or causes to be perused) the internet and social media to trap remarks and statements that distress, menace and threaten his pristine reputation. Of course, he is not one bit concerned about the gyrations of “internet crazies”. He now has the power to jail and dispossess them. What a guy! What an idle, wasteful man! Yet, he has a bill sitting in limbo for almost 2 years, a bill that is meant to protect the rights of women. He’d better see if he could find some raw cash somewhere to upgrade or spruce the women’s prison because things will change.

  3. The word Seditious has some of the following meanings:
    1. Dissident
    2. Rebellious
    3. Revolutionary
    4. Subversive
    5. Disloyal
    Now which of these was I-MADD charged with?
    Now Ralph said he has rights and he’s right, but so was the police woman he is alleged to have raped. Why didn’t he go before the court to defend himself?
    Is this cybercrime bill implemented to stop people asking whose voice was on those phone-sex takes?
    There are more questions than answers with this new bogus cybercrime bill, that Ralph’s family setup to defend it. When people accuse him of lying, rape, phone-sex and having HIV: will he use the cybercrime bill saying “EE HUT ME” to go after them?

  4. Folks this bill soon show it’s under-belly when the children of ULP supporters are caught in this web. Many young boys and girls use the Internet to show nude pictures of them, so what is the government, or the police going to do about that. As a matter of fact most police stations are stud center, where the police abuse their power and screw as many young girls in villages and towns. Then they move on to other villages and town and do the same thing.
    I have seen every young girl and young women adjusting the attire before the pass in front of the Layou Police station. The majority glance at the station each time the pass by. I don’t think it’s fear, because they would often use the F and MC word right in front the police station.

  5. Ralph ignored all the criticism from home and abroad. From individuals as well as all organizations. He knows what is best for us far better than we ourselves know what is best for us. This is because he loves the people so much that he wants to get as much money from us as possible. Money is the root of all evil you know! Best that he has all of that evil stuff so we don’t hurt ourselves with it. Now none of us can criticize him, and the world will see that we all love our supreme leader, almost as much as the guy in N Korea.

  6. Brown Boy USA says:

    I guess no one else has those same rights you outlined Mr. PM!

    You are king of the hills, but all kingdom must fall one day. You ignore all voices of the local, regional and international organizations who asked that you address critical areas in the bill as it pertains to free speech that needed to be addressed. Instead you only focused on the parts that everyone is in agreement with and past it off as that. How is that good policy? And the rest of you politicians of the ULP, none of you have any backbone, you can’t even stand up and say, yes I agree with the bill but certain aspects needs to be addressed? You just accept what papa says. You’re a bunch of political puppets and you all should be ashamed to call yourselves representative of the people.

    One good politician once said: don’t make laws that you yourself is not willing to live under. Only time will tell. Our freedom of speech must be protected because that’s one way we can keep the government in check. Understand that Ralph! Stop looking at it as criticisms or being unpatriotic. To be silence and stand idle by when we see wrong happening, that is being unpatriotic. When you do wrong you should be told and when you do right you should be congratulated for it. You are the employee of the people, not the other way around! Vincentians, put your country before your party and stop being used as political tools!!!

  7. The trouble with framing a law that is so vague, over-broad and non-specific is that people will be arrested and forced to undergo unnecessary trials and tribulations to test the meaning of the law, in the face of the person’s constitutional rights. Is this anyway to have a democracy?

  8. There is nothing in the bill passed into law on Friday, as well as the pre-existing law against sedition, which distinguishes a mere utterance of threat from a true threat that presents a clear and present danger to an individual, or to the government. Therefore, the law exists, whether intended or not, as a useful measure for speech suppression by “legal” means, though not by means of the spirit of a true democracy, which is expected to uphold truth by way of vigorous debate. A call to such examination among the commonly raised voices of the people, may be easily misconstrued as a threat, and rudely suppressed by a particularized prejudicial force of law, and the messengers may be too easily imprisoned.

Comments are closed.