Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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IPI to Govt on Cyber Crime Bill: Media needs time to tell of concerns
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) has jumped into the local debate over the Cyber Crime Bill piloted last month by National Security Minister Gary Griffith. The IPI reminded the T&T government that ”while we welcomed their efforts to partially decriminalise defamation earlier this year, we are deeply concerned about the steps to introduce legislation that may infringe on the rights of journalists and other civil groups in the twin-island nation.”
It is also asking Parliament to give the local media more time to highlight their concerns with parts of the bill which, it said, if passed would affect their ability to carry out their work. Griffith, in piloting the bill, said it would make it a crime for anyone to engage in the unauthorised transmission or sharing of electronic mails. Clause 21 is the centre of concern for members of the media and the Opposition.
It states anyone who damages the reputation of another person, or subjects another person to public ridicule, contempt, hatred or embarrassment, commits an offence and faces fines of $100,000 and/or up to three years in jail. The IPI, which had praised the Government for partially decriminalising defamation last February, said the Cyber Crime Bill now criminalises defamation and is in breach of international standards.
"We are extremely concerned that the wide net cast by this bill, the lack of a public-interest-defence clause and the inclusion of some problematic provisions would lead not only to the criminalisation of legitimate journalistic activity but also disregard fundamental journalistic rights and principles," said Alison Bethel McKenzie, IPI’s executive director. She said Clause 23, which imposes liabilities on the director, manager or secretary of a media company, is also troubling.
“It would necessarily lead to interference in the editorial process by media owners and publishers in breach of the fundamental journalistic principle of editorial independence,” she added. Part IV of the bill is also worrying, the IPI said. Barbara Trionfi, IPI’s press freedom manager, said: “It includes much needed provisions freeing internet service providers from liabilities related to information transmitted through Web sites they host but it also authorises the courts to order disclosure of information.
“Under certain circumstances, this could force journalists to reveal their sources in breach of their legal right and professional ethical duty to sources confidentiality.” The IPI said Griffith had approached a few members of the media for their views on the bill just before the recent long weekend and gave them until June 24 to air them. The IPI said: “That was not enough time. A process of public consultation before a bill is introduced to Parliament is an important step in any democratic system.
“This allows stakeholders and groups that will be affected by the new legislation to provide input and advice and eventually leads to greater transparency and accountability in the law-making process. “Two working days is not an acceptable time frame for such a consultation, as it does not leave sufficient time for relevant stakeholders to develop an informed opinion and provide relevant feedback on complex draft legislation.”
The IPI said one of the major concerns with the bill was that it entirely lacked a clear public-interest section. “Journalists must be able to collect and disseminate information about issues of public concern. The lack of a public interest clause effectively limits many forms of investigative journalism,” it noted. The T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) has called on Government to redraft and revise the bill, saying it could seriously affect press freedom.
The TTPBA appealed to the Government to begin a round of consultation and work with stakeholder associations. Opposition MP Terence Deyalsingh said recently the proposed legislation directly targeted the media. Griffith said the police Cybercrime Unit had witnessed an increase in the number of cyber incidents, including online bullying, attempted domain hijacking, Web site hacking and defacement. He said muzzling the media was not the bill’s intention.
Efforts to reach Media Association president Curtis Williams and vice-president Khamal Georges yesterday were unsuccessful.