The buzz is about the Cyber Crime Bill which was tabled in the National Assembly and then withdrawn in the face of some objections. The Bill in itself appears to threaten freedom of expression over the internet where many things happen these days.
Indeed, globally the internet is playing an important role. It brings information from every corner of the globe at an astonishing rate. Things that governments want to hide are readily exposed. People have been able to see the cruelty exacted against populations.
Of course, some governments have the power to shut down the internet, but these days that is easier said than done. Even North Korea, a closed society, cannot prevent images leaking out by enterprising people who know to get around firewalls erected by Governments.
But there is another side to all this. Some people use the internet for nefarious purposes. In Guyana where some people have set up chat sites, there have been some irresponsible comments, especially by people who are full of hate.
People distort facts, superimpose images and even incite violence for whatever reason. For example, there was the case of a prominent person posting that President David Granger, in the twinkling of an eye, acquired a large property far removed from the humble domicile in which he lived before the presidency.
Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the damage was done. President Granger was held out as a corrupt individual.
The truth came out that the home was actually his now dead brother’s. Instead of the person running a correction and perhaps an apology, he simply moved on to another topic. David Granger is not a man to run to the press to explain his private life, so there was no public response to the falsehood posted on the internet.
The incidences of people posting threats to the President have been manifold. Some have escaped punishment by the law as it now stands.
I can only imagine the government seeking to prevent a disaster, as was the case when a solitary radio broadcaster took to the airwaves in Rwanda and sparked a massacre, the likes of which was unprecedented. Nearly a million people were slaughtered by cutlasses and hatchets in that country.
The Arab Spring uprising was started by social media using the internet. Governments fell and people died. One leader, Muammar Gaddafi was killed by his people even as he tried to escape. The Syrian leader, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, survived, but he continues to face violent opposition in his country.
I would suppose in the light of these things, especially the untruths, the government would want to extend the sedition laws to the internet. Indeed, the statutes have laws for sedition. The previous administration used these laws.
Oliver Hinckson was charged with sedition, as was Mark Benschop. The latter spent five years in jail on a treason charge, even though the law said that he should be free.
Now members want to see sedition off the statutes. Former Attorney General Anil Nandlall said to me that it is time for Guyana to stop looking back. The fact that the law was used relatively recently does not mean that the country should revisit those days. I agree with him.
Sedition has no place in the modern world, especially since governments have so many means to deal with errant members of the population. Such a law, as in the case of Mark Benschop, can allow governments to shut down any opposition, no matter how harmless.
Many people are vocal and if they get under the skin of the government, then they could be silenced with a single command. However, at present, the noise is not about the sedition laws, so I can only assume that these would remain on the statutes for some time yet. It is the proposed Bill.
One clause in the Bill talks of imprisoning anyone who does something to cause harm to another. The Bill does not have to detail harm. Harm could be emotional, physical or mental. So, if a man is a thief and this information is circulated on the internet to the extent that the community rises up against the person, the individual making the posting could head to jail.
In the case of libel, the defence is the truth. If something is true, then saying that someone is a thief does not attract any punitive damages. In this case, Clause 17 of the Bill offers no such safeguard.
But up until recently, the focus was on Clause 18 (i), which in itself threatens so many things. There is a column in this newspaper called “Dem Boys Seh”. It is satire, but it contains many truthful things about people, including the leaders. It is widely circulated.
According to this proposed Bill, someone incensed by the column could move to the courts for a penalty more draconian than applies at this time. People have gone to court over the column and some have won judgments, but nobody has gone to jail. The newspaper simply paid whatever was demanded and life went on.
What is required is responsible reporting. People should be held accountable for what they report and there are enough laws to bring them to book. There was a time when the view was that the internet had no borders, that unlike a newspaper that is printed within the confines of the country, one could not claim the same for the internet.
That has since been debunked. All the authorities need is the Internet Protocol of the phone or the computer. Every computer or phone leaves a footprint. Each computer has its unique Internet Protocol address, as does a phone.
What is more is that the server used can be easily traced. People have been convicted because of this fact. What is more, the service provider, on application by the courts, must provide the information. The result is that an individual can be easily and readily charged under the existing laws.
It is this fact that is causing the opposition to the Bill.
Already there are people on both sides of the political divide who are opposed, and they have said as much. This is something worth noting. It suggests that the Bill is dead in the water.
What is surprising is that the political opposition had supported the Bill in its current form. Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo at a Press Conference stated that his colleagues had dropped the ball. He too had dropped the ball, because nothing decided on by the party can be made known without his knowledge.
Perhaps the opposition looked at the Bill and concluded that it suited them should they get back into power. The fear of living outside of Government forced them to take another look, hence the current opposition.
I am involved in disseminating information using the internet, and I don’t want to go to jail for some objection someone may raise, no matter how trivial.
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