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British Virgin Islands revises cybercrime bill to add public interest clause

In a rare move by the British Virgin Islands (BVI) Governor to withhold assent, the House of Assembly opted to revisit and amend the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act last week to include a public-interest exemption.

After months of campaigning against specific sections of the former bill, the International Press Institute (IPI) welcomed BVI legislators' recognition to include a public interest defence in an amended version passed unanimously by the House of Assembly on July 29. The decision of the governor to withhold assent in the BVI, which would activate an approved bill into law, has had few precedents in its recent policy-making history.

Local sources confirmed with IPI that the Cybercrime bill had been brought back to the legislative chamber following pressure from former BVI Governor Boyd McCleary, whose term ended on Aug. 1. The bill had not become law, as McCleary withheld assent on an earlier version.

Numerous press freedom defenders had expressed concerns on Section 13, which carries a hefty penalty for anyone who publishes unlawfully obtained information from a "protected computer" with possible jail time of up to 15 years and a fine not exceeding $78,900 (€58,900). Although the disputed Section 13 still remains in the approved version, a subsection provides that the clause “shall not affect the publication of information if the person publishing the information can establish that the publication is in the public interest of the Virgin Islands”.

“IPI still has questions on the amended section, as it does not specify who would actually be protected under this clause, the citizens of the British Virgin Islands or the government of the BVI,” IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean Vanessa I. Garnica said.

Local reports claimed that a version of the bill presented in March was aimed at protecting the financial services industry in the BVI, after a series of reports published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) during the last year revealed that the British islands had become a favourite destination for Chinese offshore clients. According to ICIJ, the financial services industry accounts for 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product. What's more, the Financial Secrecy Daily Monitor, a blog that monitors tax havens around the globe, published information stating that since ICIJ's 'Offshore Leaks' investigation began, a 21 percent decrease in company registration has been reported in the BVI.

Earlier this year, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced plans to strengthen criminal laws against offshore tax havens.

"It has been a problem in the British crown dependencies, which have not done enough in the past to be transparent,” the Guardian reported him saying in April.

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), a strategic regional partner of IPI, also welcomed the addition of a public-interest defence to the Cybercrime bill.

“While we support well-meaning efforts to tackle crime, we believe progress can be made in this direction without muzzling the press and throttling full public expression on critical matters of national interest,” ACM President Clive Bacchus told IPI this week.

IPI earlier this year asked legislators in the BVI to revise the bill to include a public-interest exemption.

“A public-interest defence serves to ensure that citizens have access to information that may be vital to them as members of that community,” Garnica commented. “It is not clear whether this amended clause achieves that purpose.”

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