Shut up or go to jail: Clause 8 of the Cybercrime (2017) Bill and it’s implications for our freedoms.

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I read an article on the Poynter website once about four types of journalists written by Matt Thompson. If I were to apply that article to myself, I’d be a mixture of the Storyteller archetype and the Analyst.  Storyteller, because I’m fascinated by human life and cultural interaction and I have a deep desire to tell the individual stories of the people I meet daily. Analyst, because I love facts and especially how numbers have a way of telling stories.  When I wrote about the Government’s expense on the medical bills for Parliamentarian Maxie Cuffie, I used facts and figures which I had corroborated. The same when I presented the expenditure by the President’s House. I checked documents and I verified. To attach my name to something which cannot be proven is something I would never purposefully do and the only way to insulate myself from producing or contributing to fake news is to verify my information using official documents. I don’t ask people to trust me blindly, I ask them to trust the numbers and the documents and the public servants who risk a lot to demonstrate their patriotism by exposing issues in the public interest.

So it’s anomalous of me to now ask the people who read what I write, whether it’s a Facebook post, a tweet, an observation on Instagram, a Whatsapp message or a news story, to use your imagination. But I do want you to use your imagination.

I want you to imagine Vanessa, a public servant, being victimised and having documented proof which she wants to take to her union, but if she takes it there, she will get fined or go to jail and the union officer who accepts it, will also get fined or go to jail.

You can imagine Brent, an employee at a State-owned company who discovers that tax-payers have been paying for a commodity which they never received and feels it is urgent and necessary to warn the public, but if he does use the documents from that state company he’ll either have to pay a lot of money or go to jail for years.

Imagine a high-ranking ministry official settling a lawsuit with tax-payers money, which sees claims of sexual harassment and secreting the lawsuit away under the cover of a non-disclosure agreement and the people who know, can’t speak.

Imagine elected officials using the money you pay in taxes, to give contracts to their relatives or cabals inflating costs of construction to give kickbacks to ministry officials and the clerk who sees these documents, and for the love of her country wants this exposed, can’t do so without facing criminal charges.

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Photo courtesy: The Tide

Now let’s place these imaginary situations in the context of the Cybercrime legislation currently before a Joint Select Committee in Parliament.

On summary conviction these people, who we have just imagined, can face a fine of $100,000 or two years imprisonment or on conviction on indictment, $500,000 or three years imprisonment for shedding a light on corruption, exposing misconduct or standing up against wrongdoing.

The purpose of the Cybercrime Bill 2017, according to the explanatory note on the document, is to “provide for the creation of offences related to cybercrime and for other related matters in Trinidad and Tobago.”  But while doing that, the bill infringes on the human rights enshrined by the Constitution, and the Bill acknowledges this, saying it would be inconsistent with sections 4 and 5 of the Constitution and required to be passed by a special majority by legislators.

The rights in Sections 4 and 5 of the Constitution belong to every citizen of this country “without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex.”

The fines faced by our imaginary characters are based on Clause 8 of the Cybercrime (2017) legislation).

 

Under all the legalese, it criminalises hacking, distribution and sharing of private material (think revenge porn), computer-related forgery and computer-related fraud as well as identity theft and cyber-bullying.

 

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As a citizen of this country, I see the positive significance of many of the clauses in this Bill. As someone concerned with transparency, accountability, and access to information intended to protect the public interest, I also see some of the potential harm.

Clause 8 of the Bill “seeks to create the offence of illegally acquiring computer data”  and an offence  of “receiving or gaining access to computer data knowing that it is obtained illegally.”

These offences would carry a fine of $100,000 and two years’ imprisonment on summary conviction or a fine of $500,000 and three years’ imprisonment on conviction on indictment.

Applied to a real-world setting, it means the person who removed the documents regarding Sports Minister Darryl Smith’s reported jaunt to Tobago could be jailed if this legislation, as would the person who received and published the information.

It means the millions of dollars in waste and corruption at state-owned NGC may not have made it to public light and the practice may very well have continued unabated.

It also means the Fake Oil scandal may have never been made public or both the person who chose to share this information and every single person who received it could have faced criminal charges.

Would someone have been jailed for sharing a photo of presidential wine? Or using documents to question the housing allowance of the head of state?

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The commonality in these situations are the same; public funds and matters of public interest.

Clause 8 certainly should reflect the need for public interest considerations and considerations for journalism.

Without this, we face a situation where the frequent mismanagement of public resources will remain a secret as legislation will force potential whistleblowers and even journalists to shut up or face jail time or a fine they have no way of paying.

We live in a country where corruption and crime are the most visible problems.

In fact, the head of the current administration Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley, when asked to reflect on his first two years in office, said: “If I leave this job today and I have to write a script as to what was my major challenge as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago during my tenure I will write simply the extent of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago.”

It is this perception and reality of corruption which makes it impossible to detach this legislation from the context of protecting the citizens of this country who share and reveal the truth to the public through journalism done in the public interest.

It infringes on our constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press by limiting what can be shared or received between citizens, so that if someone has access to a document which they feel, if published can prevent harm to the public, they must remain silent for fear of persecution.

I know too many people, some of whom are my sources, who provide information specifically because it is in the best interest of the country. I can’t twiddle my finger while this #ShutUplegislation is peddled. The Media Association, of which I am a past vice president and a current member has asked for a public interest exemption and a journalism exemption. What justification can any government have for denying something that benefits the public?

Section 2, Clause 54 of the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, confers on the Parliament, the power to make laws.

It specifically states:

 Parliament may make laws for the peace, order and good
government of Trinidad and Tobago, so, however, that the provisions of this Constitution or (in so far as it forms part of the law ofTrinidad and Tobago) theTrinidad and Tobago Independence
Act 1962 of the United Kingdom may not be altered except in accordance with the provisions of section 54.

Do I personally think Cybercrime legislation is a law for peace, order and good government at this point in our history? I think a strong Cybercrime bill which doesn’t seek to penalise citizens who come forward with information in the public interest would achieve those goals.

As it stands, it is my opinion, that this Cybercrime Bill 2017 criminalises freedom of expression, freedom of the press and perhaps even patriotic impulses.

This isn’t legislation that protects our freedoms, it is legislation which tells us, a country, to”shut up” in a time when more than ever we need to keep speaking, keep exposing corrupt practices and fight for our country.

I’ve heard the argument that this will only affect journalists but I ask that you don’t believe that. As a journalist, working for an established media house I’ve never interviewed myself, never shared my personal opinions or leaked a file to myself. I’ve been a bridge between my fellow citizens to the elected government, due to access I receive because of my function. Telling me to shut up, is delivering that same message to you.

I plan on tweeting, sending Facebook messages, calling my MP and generally using my voice to demonstrate my displeasure. What do you plan to do?

I hope, after reading this, you share your thoughts.

#pressfreedom

#shutuplegislation

#letterk

 

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