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St. Vincent and the Grenadines passes Cybercrime Bill that allows prison sentences for online defamation

Lawmakers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines passed the 2016 Cybercrime Act on Aug. 12 that provides up to two years in prison for online defamation.

The country’s criminal code already provides for up to two years in prison for defamation in print, writing and broadcast.

Before the passage of the new bill, opposition politician Anesia Baptiste told CPJ that existing criminal defamation laws in St. Vincent and the Grenadines “have fallen into disuse,” the organization reported. “We worry that the cybercrime bill could revive them,” she added.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who introduced the bill to the House on May 31, said there was “long discussion” concerning the legislation, according to the Jamaica Observer.

However, the bill received criticism from opposition politicians and international and regional freedom of expression organizations.

Several provisions of this bill pose a serious threat to freedom of the press, the free flow of online information, and public debate,” according to a joint statement from at least 25 freedom of expression organizations including Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French), the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI). The statement was released following the passage of the bill.

The organizations pointed out that Grenada adopted a similar law in 2013, but then amended it because of international criticism. They also said that both Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana are looking at similar legislation.

“The steps taken today in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to strengthen criminal defamation laws and stifle online dissent and discussion could reverse the positive legislative trend in the Caribbean and serve as a negative example for Saint Vincent’s regional neighbors,” the organizations said.

They called on the government to revise the law and abolish criminal defamation.

Many of these organizations voiced criticism of the Cybercrime Bill leading up to its Aug. 12 passage.

For example, RSF wrote to Gonsalves with concerns about the bill and clauses it regarded as “extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate.”

In particular, Delphine Halgand, U.S. Director of RSF, pointed out a part of Section 16 that provides prison sentences for “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.”

Halgand was concerned with criteria used to determine whether someone’s “private affairs” were exposed.

“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,” Halgand said.

Gonsalves responded to the organization that amendments had been made to the clause, according to iWitness News. He said, “the offence of criminal defamation is not a fetter on professional, independent journalists,” and that it does protect citizens who are victims of deliberate defamation, according to the news site.

Gonsalves later said that clause 7 concerning “illegal acquisition of data” also was amended for a public interest defense, according to News 784.

“So that if someone gets some information that a public official, a politician or whatsoever is corrupt, they get data on it, you obtain it, this information, when you publish it, they can’t come at you because you will have what is called a public interest defence, which did not exist before when the bill was originally drafted.”

The news organization reported that the protections aren't extended to information about health or national security.

A final version of the law, including the mentioned amendment to clause 7, is not yet available on the House of Assembly’s website.

When asked about the reported changes to the clause, Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director for RSF USA, said “Because I haven’t seen this amendment, I would say that in general a public interest defense for whistleblowers is a welcome and necessary protection for those that have revealed information that is meant to inform the public and provide a public service and are nevertheless facing prosecution.”

International nonprofit organizations and multilateral organizations have worked to get rid of criminal defamation laws in the region or spoken against them. For example, on various occasions, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights has said that the "use of criminal law to punish manifestations on matters of public interest and public officials is disproportionate and therefore violates the right to freedom of expression."


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