PPP ‘dropped the ball’ in spotting sedition clause in Cybercrime Bill – Jagdeo

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As public concerns grow over the sedition clause in the impending cybercrime legislation, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) has criticised that aspect of the Bill even though it had representatives on the Committee that approved the draft law.

But Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo today admitted that the PPP Parliamentarians may have “dropped the ball” at the level of the Committee for failing to identify the “undemocratic” and widely condemned clause.

Jagdeo, at a press conference, came out in strong condemnation of the sedition clause in the Cybercrime Bill which virtually makes it a criminal offence for someone to speak ill of the Government on a social media platform.

He even took a jab at the Minister of State, Joseph Harmon who last week defended the clause, noting that it is necessary to guard against espionage, sabotage and subversion.

“I keep wondering what kind of State secrets we have, how many nuclear bunkers we have in the Pomeroon and the Chemical Gas factories that we are building that we have to be so worried about State espionage and sabotage and subversion,” Jagdeo questioned.

In light of the Party’s criticisms, concerns were raised regarding why the PPP Parliamentarians, who were on the Select Committee tasked with reviewing the Bill, did not object to the clause then. The MPs were Anil Nandlall, Gail Teixeira, Clement Rohee and Gillian Burton-Persaud.

But Jagdeo made it clear that this was because the Parliamentarians may have overlooked the clause, not because they supported its insertion.

The Opposition Leader said the parliamentarians were not present at one of the meetings and this was when the Government Parliamentarians “surreptitiously” inserted the “draconian” clause.

“I am not saying it’s a good excuse. I think we dropped the ball on this matter, we dropped the ball … and it was only after the Monday [April 23, 2018] meeting that we had in preparation for Parliament that when we had a good look at the Bill, we recognised that this provision had been inserted in our absence [at the Committee],” the Opposition Leader stated.

The former president explained that the cybercrime law is intended to protect children against pornography and citizens’ online privacy, not to protect the interest of those in Government.

According to Clause 18 of the Bill, “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.”

The Clause goes on the outline specific offences in relation to online utterances about government ministers and the Prime Minister.

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.

The Cybercrime Bill was intended to come up for debate in the National Assembly on Thursday last but the Attorney General Basil Williams asked for the matter to be deferred to another sitting.

The Opposition Leader said he hopes this was done because the Government recognised the undemocratic nature of the sedition clause and plans on deleting it from the Bill.

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