I wish to comment on the proposed Cyber Crimes Bill (2016) which is expected to undergo deliberations in Parliament. There is one section, Article 18:1, which has caught the attention of the public and media groups in Guyana. Article 18:1 (a) outlines the conditions of an ‘Offence of Sedition’. An immediate reading of this section would give the impression that the government seeks protection from the provisions of Article 18:1 (a) and (b) to prevent opposition sources from undermining its sovereignty.
Firstly, there are two terms invoked in Article 18:1 that are vaguely expressed in context: ‘intentionally’ and ‘disaffection.’ Regarding ‘intentionally’, Section 18:1 reads “A person commits an offence of sedition if the person, whether in or out of Guyana, intentionally publishes, transmits or circulates by use of computer system, a statement or words, either spoken, a text, video, image, sign, visible representation, or other thing, that…” There are no defined specifics for what constitutes intentionality. It would be up to a court of law to determine what this means given the context of the case presented, which could lead to a conviction based on arbitrary conditions. Additionally, the article seeks to silence opinions of government officials which may portray them in a negative manner. But without the means to express opposition, democracy leads towards a path of regression and tyranny.
As for the term ‘disaffection’, it is not clear what the government seeks to accomplish here besides protection from political opposition, something only dictators need to have institutionalized, and which is certainly not compatible with democratic rule. Secondly, Section 18:1 is in clear contravention of the Constitution of Guyana, namely Article 145—Protection of Freedom of Conscience—and Article 146—Protection of Freedom of Expression. How can the government propose legislation that infringes on citizens’ fundamental human rights enshrined in the highest document of the land, the Constitution? I cannot comprehend a reasonable explanation besides what seems to be a great oversight, if not sloppy legislative work. Any attempt at suppressing or inhibiting free expression is a threat to democracy itself, and thus a threat to the nation. We must hold all members of the Select Committee on this bill, on both sides of the aisle, accountable for their decision to put forth this undemocratic clause.
Furthermore, if we want to understand why Article 18:1 of the Cyber Crimes Bill (2016) is in contravention of the constitutional rights of liberty and expression, we must understand the foundations of Guyanese democracy and its philosophical underpinnings. There are two essential pillars of modern democracy: liberty and justice. The concept of liberty extends to speech, thought and expression, with much of its formulation worked out by the 19th century British Philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his famous work On Liberty, Mill wrote:
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
In Mill’s view, if an opinion is unpopular or considered too contrary to social norms, there is no good reason to silence it. For Mill, suppressing contrary views would “rob the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation.” What he means here is that it does not matter whether contrary views are true, false, half-true or half-false, but any means to suppress them would refuse a voice that could otherwise contribute to social gains. And it does not matter whether contrary views are spoken in a negative or positive tone, both are just as important to be heard as to be spoken.
Another important merit of avoiding suppressing contrary views is that opposition or critical views can help us to filter out defects in our reasoning, appeal for change for the better, and even give us better discernment on matters of truth and falsehood. How else can we be sure about our own positions without opposition? How could we know whether we are, say, introducing a sound piece of legislation without honest feedback from our constituents if we only allow for positive views? How else would the current administration have been successful in their 2015 campaigning if not for countless persons, largely on social media, expressing their disaffection for the previous government? Where would the coalition be if such legislation had been in place then?
Freedom of speech and expression are the source of social change, progress, and eventual truth. I believe that a serious blow to our democracy will be struck if the Cyber Crimes Bill (2016) is passed and I urge the National Assembly to request its immediate revision.
Ferlin F Pedro