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Mauritius amends law to include harsh penalties for online content

Protesters hold a placard reading 'Democracy in grief' during a demonstration in Port Louis, Mauritius on 27 January 2017, after former Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth handed over power to his son Pravind
Protesters hold a placard reading 'Democracy in grief' during a demonstration in Port Louis, Mauritius on 27 January 2017, after former Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth handed over power to his son Pravind

JEAN MARC POCHE/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 17 November 2018.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Mauritian national assembly to reconsider last week's amendments to the Information and Communication Technologies Act (ICTA), which have drastically reinforced penalties for supposed online abuses a year ahead of the next parliamentary elections.

Under the amendments adopted on 6 November, anyone in Mauritius sending a message via the Internet that causes or could cause something as harmless as "inconvenience" could end up being sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

When originally adopted in 2001, the ICTA referred solely to messages that caused anxiety or distress in those to whom they were addressed, conditions that could be determined by means of a psychological assessment.

But to "restore order" and combat online "excesses," Acting President Barlen Vyapoory has approved changes that make it possible for any person to file a complaint and seek damages for a post, share or even a like that "is likely to cause or causes annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety."

The extremely vague and broad nature of these terms is all the more disturbing because the maximum penalty for all offences cited in the ICTA has been doubled, from five to ten years in prison, while the previous stipulation that prosecutors have to demonstrate an intent to cause harm has been dropped.

"In the run-up to parliamentary elections in a year's time, online criticism of the government by journalists doing their job as democracy's watchdogs is liable to expose them to repeated prosecution and even to extremely heavy sentences,
said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "The national assembly must reconsider these amendments, whose use could drastically curtail the freedom to inform. This draconian legislation is also a complete contradiction of the ruling party's promise in 2014 to pass a law facilitating access to information, a law that Mauritians are still awaiting."

Many Mauritian journalists and publishers have voiced concern about the dangers posed by these amendments. Nad Sivaramen, the publisher of the newspaper L'Express, told RSF he regarded the desire to monitor social networks in the run-up to the elections as "suspicious."

Rabin Bhujun, the editor of the Ion.news website, said he was concerned that "influential people" could turn this law into "a tool for intimidation and harassment," exposing those targeted to "arrest and lengthy interrogation."

Mauritius is ranked 56th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

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