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Human Rights Watch calls for withdrawal of cybercrime bill

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, May 13, 2011 - The Angolan government should withdraw the bill on information and communication technology crimes currently before parliament, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposed legislation would undercut both freedom of expression and information, and pose a severe threat to independent media, whistleblowers, and investigative journalism.

The bill would also give security forces a blank check to search and confiscate data without due oversight and would create harsher penalties for crimes that are already defined in previous legislation if they are committed through electronic information technology, Human Rights Watch said.

"This bill claims to be in line with best international practices, but it in fact fails to establish clear safeguards to protect the public's right to know and right to speak," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It would extend and deepen the existing restrictions in Angola's media environment to the internet, where many Angolans have turned for open debate on matters the government wants to restrict."

The Angolan parliament, dominated by the ruling Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), passed the draft information technology crime bill law on March 31, 2011, without allowing for wider public debate. The bill was approved as part of a package of laws regulating information technology and data protection. Internal discussions have continued in parliamentary commissions, which are equally dominated by the ruling party.

In April, a group of journalists and civic activists submitted their main concerns about the bill in writing to parliament. In response, the government, in a meeting with the Angolan Journalists' Union on May 9 that was not open to the public, presented some minor amendments. The response failed to address a number of the major concerns. Human Rights Watch is concerned that parliament may submit the law to the president for his signature next week without genuinely open and broad public debate.

The use of internet and social media by journalists, civic and human rights activists, and opposition parties has become more and more important in Angola, as a means of circumventing the longstanding restrictions on traditional media. In a speech to the ruling party on April 14, President Eduardo dos Santos claimed that the internet was being used to organize unauthorized demonstrations to "insult, denigrate, provoke uproar and confusion." This speech has fuelled concerns that the bill is actually aimed not at internet crime but at clamping down on political speech and organizing through the electronic media.

The bill is also part of a broader pattern of restrictions on fundamental freedoms. In December 2010, Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the revised state security crime law, which, among other provisions, criminalizes "insulting" the president. In March, Human Rights Watch documented a ruling party intimidation campaign to discourage people from joining an anti-government demonstration that had been called via the internet.

"This bill, slipping through without proper public debate, could hamper the fundamental freedoms enshrined in Angola's 2010 constitution," Bekele said. "This does not serve the interests of a government seeking international respectability, particularly in view of upcoming 2012 elections."

For further details on specific articles of the bill, and the human rights implications, click here
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