While making it clear that the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) is strongly opposed to the inclusion of a sedition clause in the proposed Cybercrime Bill, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday said that lapses by the party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) may have allowed the government to include it.
“I think we dropped the ball on this matter… because it was only after the Monday meeting that we had in preparation for Parliament… when we had a good look at the bill that we recognised that this provision had been inserted in our absence,” Jagdeo said in response to a question asked by Stabroek News during a press conference yesterday.
Section 18.1 of the bill states that a person commits the offence of sedition if the person, whether in or out of Guyana, publishes, transmits or circulates by use of a computer system a statement or words, either spoken or written, text, video, image, sign, visible representation or other thing that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in Guyana.”
According to the definition in Section 18 (4), disaffection includes “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.”
This provision has attracted strong criticism and some have labelled it an illustration of “creeping dictatorship.”
Before the bill could be read for a second time at last Thursday’s sitting of the National Assembly, Attorney-General Basil Williams SC, who tabled a report of a Select Committee on the bill, requested that the bill be deferred.
That committee was appointed in August, 2016 to review the bill.
When Stabroek News asked Jagdeo why the party did not make its objections to the sedition provision public immediately after it was discovered, he explained that the party wanted to “get the minutes of the committee meetings…before.” He added that he asked one of two groups of MPs for an assessment of the situations in Commonwealth and developing countries to help with their case when the bill came up for debate but “once we saw this provision then a lot of things changed.”
He expressed hope that the withdrawal of the bill from the National Assembly’s agenda would mean that the government itself has recognised that the provision has “no place in modern day Guyana.”
The opposition leader pointed out that he is not confident that good arguments and public outcry from the party would sway any determination on the part of the government to debate and pass the bill. “They have a one seat majority and they will use it as they have done on so many other occasions. We may not succeed… I just want that bit of realism to get home,” he stressed.
Under Jagdeo’s administration, the charge of sedition had been used against several persons and remains on the law books.
In his opening statement at the news conference, Jagdeo told reporters that the inclusion of the clause could have “grave implications for freedom of speech in Guyana.” Jagdeo stressed that the provisions made under the sedition section have no place in a “free” Guyana and pointed out that free speech is an important part of the country’s democracy.
He said that the section is reminiscent of the “old National Security Act that obtained in the period of undemocratic rule under the PNC. That Act was repealed in the early 90s and that Act was specifically designed to stifle… and to take action against individuals who may disagree with the Government of Guyana. It was a repressive tool in the hands of repressive government.”
Jagdeo also said that there is now a “trend towards unilateralism” in Guyana. “We have seen a trend where the government acts with impunity regardless of laws or provisions of our constitution or indirect contravention of provisions of our constitution,” he said, while dubbing the section “another tool” available to a government is becoming increasingly undemocratic in its march towards a dictatorship.
He charged that the insertion of the provision is about the protection of the government and ministers and not the people and their children, for which the bill was originally intended.
“Why do they need a special provision in this article to protect the interest of only those categories of people?” he questioned, while noting that the entire Guyana must fight to the “retrograde step.”
Meanwhile, Jagdeo took issue with a report, headlined ‘Nandlall slams sedition clause in Cybercrime Bill,” which was published in yesterday’s Stabroek News.
He told reporters that he took issue with the section that read, “Nandlall, who was a member of the Special Select Committee appointed in August 2016 to review the bill, stated on his Facebook page that ‘the sittings of that Committee conflicted with my rigorous Court schedule. As a result, I was unable to attend most, if not all, the sittings of this Committee. Therefore I did not support the provisions of this Bill in that Committee as is being alleged.’ He further said that he holds strong objections to certain clauses in that Bill and identified Clauses 17 and 18 when contacted by Stabroek News. With his party, the PPP/C having supported these provisions at the committee stage, it is left to be seen how he responds to the bill when it comes up for second reading and debate.”
Jagdeo made it clear that Facebook posts by party members are not a reflection of the party’s position. “Facebook posts by Members of Parliament and leaders of the PPP are not the official position of the People’s Progressive Party,” he said, while noting that MPs have been asked to keep their posts decent “in keeping with what we believe in and robust in the defence of people and the party’s policies.”
He said that the newspaper article created the impression that Nandlall has reservations about the bill but the PPP in the Select Committee supported the bill and its provisions. “That is not true! Absolutely not true!” he declared, while stressing that the party on whose behalf he speaks, “does not support this inclusion, this undemocratic inclusion in the Cybercrime Bill.”
Though Jagdeo stated that the PPP/C did not support the inclusion of sedition in the clause, no part of the committee’s report submitted to Parliament reflects any objection by the PPP/C MPs. Aside from Nandlall, the other PPP/C MPs on the committee were Chief Whip Gail Teixeira, Clement Rohee and Gillian Persaud-Burton.
Jagdeo added that the party felt that there needs to be a balance between protecting the people, children and data and people’s civil rights.
“The moment we discovered this clause… we said we are opposed to this bill. So, the PPP did not approve the bill…does not support this bill,” he said, while noting that the party and its MPs can be blamed for being absent.
While he accused the government of deliberately “inserting” the clause into the bill when the PPP/C members were absent, Jagdeo made it clear that he was not saying that the absence of his MPs was a good excuse for what has happened.
The APNU+AFC government was represented on the committee by Williams, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, Minister of Education Nicolette Henry and Parliamentarians Michael Carrington and Audwin Rutherford.