Harmon cites concerns of espionage, sabotage and subversion for Cyber Crimes Bill

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The Government is moving to reintroduce and pass legislation to protect against Cyber Crime.

But major concern is a provision in the Bill which makes it an act of sedition for someone to use a computer system to circulate messages deemed to excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government.

The Opposition has said the draconian clause related to sedition should be deleted.

The Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, Friday said the Government was concerned about espionage, sabotage and subversion. He was speaking at his post-Cabinet news briefing at the Ministry of the Presidency in Georgetown.

The Cyber Crimes Bill was before a Parliamentary Select Committee for two years and returned to the House on Thursday evening. It was not debated but deferred to a later date.

A major concern is Section 18, dealing with offences of sedition.

Minister of State, Joseph Harmon

It states: “a person commits an offence of sedition if the person, whether in or out of Guyana, intentionally publishes, transmit or circulates by use of a computer system, a statement or words, either spoken or written, a text, video, image, sign, visible representation that brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government….”  

While the Bill goes on to explain that this does not include comments expressing “disapprobation” of the measures of government” it still says any such “disapprobation” must be done “without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection.”

In the case of the media, this presents an acute problem as the legislation, if passed in its current form, can be misused by Government.

For example, if an article is published that causes public outrage, then a journalist can be charged. However, even if there is no outrage, the Police can still charge a journalist for what they may see as an attempt to excite public outrage.

Definitions in the Bill are vague. While some aspects of the Bill attempt to explain the meaning of disaffection as “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity,” but there is no explicit definition of disloyalty or enmity.

Minister Harmon would not get into the concerns and said he expected there would be a robust and healthy debate in Parliament.

But he said the cyber defence is a major concern now, and had been discussed at the level of the National Defence Committee, and hence the government’s move to put the legislation in place.

He said that the measures in the Bill are meant to strengthen Guyana’s ability to defend against cyber-attacks.

Harmon said that while there are concerns about the Bill, he suggested that one cannot discuss a section on its own but one has to consider the entire suite of measures being introduced.

The Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) is suggesting that the section dealing with sedition be deleted. This is according to former Attorney General and PPP front-bencher Anil Nandlall.

Former AG, Anil Nandlall

Nandlall explained that the offence of sedition has been abolished from its country of origin, which was the United Kingdom.

He said for a country to be introducing such a law in the 21st century is a retrograde step.

“Every day your newscast makes critical remarks about the government, your reporters publish critical statements of or concerning the government, every day you would be exposed to the perils of being hauled before the courts and charged with the offence of sedition,” he explained.

Nandlall was one of three opposition parliamentarians on the committee tasked with reviewing the draft legislation which was presented to the House two years ago.

But the attorney said he was unable to attend any of the eight meetings of the Committee.

The Committee, which also included Attorney General Basil Williams, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of Education Nicolette Henry, approved the Cybercrime Bill with this contentious clause.

Nandlall said he cannot say at this stage how the other opposition parliamentarians overlooked this section but he urged all and sundry to mount pressure for the clause to be removed.

He said this clause is an attack on freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press and promised to take the matter to court if the Bill becomes law without changes to this section.

The Guyana Press Association (GPA) has already condemned this section of the Cybercrime Bill.

President Nazima Raghubir posited that legislators cannot be this disconnected from society to construct a clause that can be misused at any time to trample on one’s right to freedom of expression.

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