The proposed Cybercrime Bill continues to come under attack with the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) yesterday declaring that the bill is “profoundly undemocratic” while the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) has called on the government to rescind the “law of sedition” as contained in the bill and other parts of Guyanese law.
According to the WPA the offence has been misused in the past to silence critics of the PPP/C government and goes against the present government’s statements on record that it would dispense power in keeping with the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.
The party which is part of the governing APNU+AFC coalition affirmed in its statement that “censorial power is in the people over the government and not the government over the people” and expressed the view that political discontent is the cornerstone of democracy.
“Any law which seeks to criminalize free speech or to appear to tamper with it in any form is a blow to the will of the people,” the party stressed adding that a sedition law which is a historical legacy of colonialism has no place in a modern democratic society and in fact should have been abolished at the time of political independence.
The statement added that for an independent Guyana to still use the “tools of the Crown” to silence dissident voices or threaten them to stay silent in the face of authoritarian behaviour is a betrayal of the anti-colonial struggle of the working people of Guyana.
Consequently the WPA urged government to rescind the law of sedition as a signal that the state has no intention to resort to oppressive rule in the face of legitimate criticisms.
It further noted that there are adequate provisions in other acts such as the Racial Hostility Act to treat with the relevant cases that may arise.
While the GHRA has expressed similar sentiment against the now controversial Clause 18 which codifies the offence of Sedition, the association argues that “it is only one of many obnoxious features.”
Its fundamental premise that social peace will be secured by protecting the reputation of elected officials from public scrutiny by criminalizing opinion, destroying principles of plurality, freedom of expression and the human right to access the internet is perverse, according to GHRA and therefore the entire bill should be withdrawn.
The association maintained that the genuine issues the Bill seeks to address could be largely and more effectively grafted onto existing legislation. These issues include grooming of minors, financial crimes, cyber-bullying and vindictive misuse of personal information to humiliate people.
According to GHRA the draconian nature of the Bill is established in the first substantive Clause which states that a person commits an offence if the person intentionally, without authorisation or in excess of authorisation, or by infringing any security measure, accesses a computer system or any part of a computer system of another person. Anyone who commits this offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine of three million dollars and to imprisonment for three years; or on conviction on indictment to a fine of five million dollars and to imprisonment for five years.
They further argue that the sweeping negative character of the Bill is sustained throughout with Clause 30, as an example, stating that a person who has knowledge about the functioning of a computer system or computer data storage medium, or security measures applied to protect computer data, that is the subject of a search warrant shall, if requested by the police officer authorised to undertake the search, assist the police officer to access the computer. A person who fails, without lawful excuse or justification, to comply with this subsection commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of three million dollars and to imprisonment for one year.
In between anyone interfering with any computer and anyone knowledgeable being compelled to help the police, internet service providers and other intermediaries are to become censors of the activities (and opinions ?) of their users as Clause 21(2) states where a body corporate commits an offence under this Act and the court is satisfied that a director, manager, secretary, or other similar officer, of that body corporate consented or connived in the commission of the offence; or failed to exercise due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence, that director, manager, secretary, or other similar officer commits an offence.
A summary conviction on any of these offences renders both the ‘body corporate’ and individuals who commit an offence liable to a fine of five million dollars and to imprisonment for three years; and on conviction on indictment to a fine of eight million dollars and to imprisonment for five years.
Using these and Clause 18 as evidence, GHRA has compared the Bill to the role of the morality police associated with the most repressive regimes.
GHRA repeatedly stressed that the cybercrime bill suppresses the right to freedom of expression, encourages censorship and self-censorship, eliminates content and blocks internet sites.
“It seems not to have occurred either to Government or Opposition parliamentarians involved in the Special Committee that reviewed this Bill that ‘exciting disaffection’ and ‘contempt’ has been a central feature of Guyanese politics thanks in no small part to the contributions made by both major political parties. Were this Bill passed into law any form of ‘disaffection’ expressed by militants in their ranks in a tweet, a post, or other form of public social media statement, could trigger application of the above penalties to themselves and their party leaders,” the human rights body informed.
“Cyberspace is not some form of disease that needs to be ‘cauterized’ lest it becomes rampant and destroy us all. On the contrary it is both an expression and a reflection of today’s reality and that of the foreseeable future as well. A more enlightened approach is required – one which does not begin by seeking refuge in what will inevitably become a legislative quagmire in an already unstable criminal justice system,” GHRA stated.