The Cybercrime Bill which attracted widespread attention was last evening passed by the National Assembly with several amendments, including the removal of the controversial clause on sedition.
Although the Bill prior to its passage had received two Cabinet reviews, a Parliamentary Special Select Committee review, public consultations and input from experts, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) MPs urged Government to delay its passage, because the new amendments did not go far enough to protect free speech and the rights of citizens.
Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams, who tabled the Bill, indicated that two crucial amendments were made, a demonstration that the government is receptive and responsive to criticisms and committed to the democratic process.
“We recognise that passing of laws affect society and therefore those who will be affected should have an input in the legislative process,” Williams told the National Assembly to kick start the debate that lasted well over five hours.
The overall thrust of the Bill is to make illegal, certain activities using a computer and over the internet, such as child pornography, cyber bullying, theft of data, and revenge porn among others.
However, there were concerns about aspects of the Bill. The most contentious was Section 18 (1) (a) of the Bill which indicated that a person commits the offence of sedition if he brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in Guyana.
According to the original Section 18 (1) of the Bill, a person can commit the offence whether in or out of Guyana by intentionally publishing, transmitting or circulating by use of a computer system or any other means, a statement or words, either spoken or written, a text, video, image, sign, visible representation, or other thing.
The penalty proposed ranged from four months in prison to a life sentence where death occurs.
Local community watchdog, Transparency Institute Guyana Inc. (TIGI), had called for the scrapping of the sedition clause in the Cybercrime Bill. Several others publicly called for the Clause to be removed, including the Opposition, Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and local author, Ruel Johnson.
The Clause revealed a division within the Alliance For Change (AFC) with its leader, Raphael Trotman declaring that it should be removed, while party Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan, argued for the Clause to remain part of the Bill.
In the end, Williams said that Cabinet considered the comments and decided on deleting subsection 1 (a) which was the main cause for concern.
However, the Opposition MPs called for the enter Clause to be removed, essentially warning that it opens the door for the state to restrict persons who oppose the Government through statements via cyber space.
There were also concerns about the original Clause 9 of the Bill which made the unauthorized receiving, giving or obtaining of access to electronic data an offence. Reporters Without Borders were concerned that the Clause could be used to penalise journalists and media for publishing reports based on information from a confidential source, even if the journalists had no basis to suspect that the information was illegally obtained.
According to Williams, taking into account the concerns, the criminal aspect of the Clause has been removed and is more specific.
PROTECTING THE STATE
Williams noted that the amended Section 18 provides for offences against the state.
He indicated that some of these offences are where a person intentionally publishes, transmits, or circulates by use of a computer system, statement or words either spoken or written, text, video, image, sign, visible representation that encourages incites, induces, aids and abets, counsels any person to commit, participate in the commission of, or to conspire with another person to commit any criminal offence against the President or any member of the Government and excites or attempts to excite ethnic divisions among the people of Guyana or hostility or ill-will against any person or class or persons on the ground of race.
According to Williams, the clause does not criminalize ‘certain statements or words’ and persons are still free to criticize the performance of the Government.
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