Gonsalves argues in favor of the provisions for criminal defamation

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves has responded to a letter sent to him by the watchdog agency Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stressing that this country’s proposed Cybercrime Bill has been subjected to informed scrutiny by the relevant officials in the State administration, the general public and a Parliamentary Select Committee.

The RSF letter, which was sent to Gonsalves on July 27, expressed concern {{more}}about certain aspects of the Bill currently before Parliament.

“…we regard some of the clauses in this Bill extremely damaging to the free flow of news and information and to public debate,” the letter, signed by US director, RSF Delphine Halgand, stated.

Gonsalves, in his response, dated July 29, thanked Halgand for her letter, while commending RSF for their global work in promoting and defending “freedom of expression”, “the free press”, “independent journalism and journalists”.

“I am fortified by RSF’s sense of balance and responsibility in your letter’s affirmation, in its commentary on the Cybercrime Bill, that: The Internet should not escape the authority of the law altogether and we believe that it is perfectly legitimate to sanction such crimes and offences as theft of documents or data, online identity theft, cyber-bullying or, even more serious, child pornography.

“I take your listing of ‘crimes and offences’ which are ‘perfectly legitimate to sanction’ as not exclusive, but as indicative examples,” the Prime Minister said in his letter.

Gonsalves noted in his letter that the Bill before Parliament is a common piece of legislation, which was drafted through the appropriate regional mechanisms for consideration by member-states of the Caribbean Community and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

“Indeed, this Bill is part and parcel of a raft of legislative measures touching and concerning certain electronic and internet activities, some of which have already been enacted. In fact, since 2013 there have been consultations with the private and public sectors in St Vincent and the Grenadines on this Bill by the regional drafters. More specifically, the Bill was published in the print media in St Vincent and the Grenadines and online; electronic copies were made available to civil society organisations and personalities upon request”, stressed Gonsalves.

The Prime Minister, in his letter, said that comments by the general public were invited and several written submissions were made to the Office of the Attorney General.

“These submissions, including two by independent journalists, have been circulated to the Select Committee for its consideration; so, too, has your letter.”

He explained in his letter that the Bill itself was published for public scrutiny and commentary over two months ago and had its first reading in Parliament on May 31, 2016.

“….a Select committee under my Chairmanship was appointed. Six members of the Government’s side in Parliament, including the Attorney General, who is a public servant, were named to the Select Committee…,” Gonsalves explained to RSF.

He noted that the Select Committee has invited several persons to appear before, and sit with it, to consider the Cybercrime Bill in detail.

Among these persons are representatives from the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NTRC), public servants from the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information, the Director of Public Prosecutions and staff, the president and vice-president of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Bar Association, the president of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Chamber of Industry and Commerce (SVGCIC) and the political leader of the Democratic Republican Party.

The Select Committee has had several meetings on the Bill, as it is conducting a detailed clause-by-clause examination of the Bill.

Gonsalves noted that substantial amendments to the Bill have already been made at the Select Committee and its report to Parliament will reflect these amendments.

“Clause 16 of which you have expressed concern was already amended prior to your letter to me, and has been further reviewed consequent upon your intervention, but I am not sure that all your queries have been addressed to your satisfaction. You will see the final product in due course,” said Gonsalves.

Addressing the issue of “criminal defamation” in the Bill itself and the pre-existing provision on “criminal libel” in the Criminal Code, Gonsalves stressed that he did not share the view of RSF that the offence of “criminal defamation” has “a chilling effect on freedom of press and freedom of expression.”

“I understand RSF’s position, but I consider it to be wrong in our circumstances,” said Gonsalves, adding, “I have long held this view on criminal defamation for over 48 years as a political activist (in Opposition and in Government), as a defence and human rights lawyer of 34 years standing, and as a tireless fighter for freedom of expression, justice, fairness, and a judicious balancing of rights and responsibilities.”

Gonsalves said that the offence of criminal defamation is not a fetter on professional, independent journalists, but protects citizens who may be the subject of deliberate defamation by irresponsible men and women of straw, who have absolutely no means to satisfy a monetary judgment awarded in a case of civil defamation.

“It protects, too, society; and it certainly aids peace, tranquillity, and non-violent responses by victims of defamation. In any event, the Director of Public Prosecutions is the explicit gate-keeper in any prosecution for this offence; clearly, only the most egregious cases would attract his prosecutorial attention”, stressed Gonsalves in his reply.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *