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Cybercrime bill in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines raises concerns for free flow of news

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

This letter was originally published on rsf.org on 27 July 2016.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has sent the following letter to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines' Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and Minister of Information Camillo Gonsalves addressing its concerns with the Cybercrime bill currently being debated in Parliament. RSF calls for the revision of several clauses that are extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate.

Washington, DC July 27, 2016

Dear Prime Minister Gonsalves,
Dear Minister of Information Gonsalves,

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to express to you its concern about Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Cybercrime Bill currently being debated in Parliament.

We do not dispute the principle of this law nor its provisions. The Internet should not escape the authority of the law altogether and we believe that it is perfectly legitimate to sanction such crimes and offences as the theft of documents or data, online identity theft, cyberbullying or, even more serious, child pornography.

However, we regard some of the clauses in this bill extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate.

For example, Section 16 (2) of Part II incorporates criminal libel, which is already a criminal offence in Section 274 of the criminal code.

Section 16 (3) states: “A person who, intentionally or recklessly uses a computer system to disseminate any information, statement or image; and exposes the private affairs of another person, thereby subjecting that other person to public ridicule, contempt, hatred or embarrassment, commits an offence.” Offenders can be sentenced to up to 5 years' imprisonment and/or pay a fine of 200,000 East Caribbean dollars.

Under what criteria can information be considered to expose “private affairs” of another person regardless of factual accuracy (which this subsection refrains from mentioning)? This provision could very easily constitute an obstacle to the dissemination of information of public interest. It could, for example, provide any demonstrably corrupt public figure with a strong argument for refusing to be held accountable.

Clause 16 also defines cyberbullying as using “a computer system repeatedly or continuously to convey information which causes fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other harm to another person; or detriment to another person's health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.” This language remains subjective and could be broadly interpreted in a manner that negatively impacts the free flow of information.

We are also concerned about the range of the bill's applicability. Clause 31 of Part III states that “an act [constituting an offence] is carried out in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines if the effect of the act, or the damage resulting from the act, occurs within Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Here again, the lack of precision about the nature of the effect to which this clause refers could result in significant obstacles to freedom of information.

The danger posed by these provisions is, in our view, all the greater because the law gives the police and judicial authorities a great deal of scope to access the personal data of someone who is being investigated.

Furthermore, RSF considers criminal defamation to have a chilling effect on freedom of the press and freedom of expression and has repeatedly urged countries to decriminalize this offense.

For all these reasons, we urge you not to pass this bill into law in its present form and to amend the most sensitive clauses. We also urge you to amend the criminal code in order to de-criminalize defamation.

We thank you in advance for the attention you give to this letter.

Sincerely,

Delphine Halgand
US Director, Reporters Without Borders

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