The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today called for key segments of a new cybercrime bill in British Virgin Islands (BVI) to be reconsidered over concerns the law would stifle press freedom, particularly through online criminal defamation provisions.

On October 18, the legislature of the self-governing British overseas territory passed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime (Amendment) Act 2019, whose stated aim is updating the country’s cyber laws and helping to ensure privacy, deter cyber harassment and better protect minors online.

However, among the raft of proposed amendments are proposals to criminalize “electronic defamation” and “sending offensive messages through a computer”, with proposed penalties of up to a 14-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.

While the amendments passed in the House of Assembly last month, the bill still needs assent from the territory’s UK-appointed governor, Augustus Jaspert, who is expected to decide on its final approval in the coming weeks.

After reviewing the documents, IPI has raised concerns over two worrying clauses in the law which could have potentially harmful effects on press freedom and freedom of expression, while also leaving the small Caribbean archipelago out of step with its neighbours.

“If given final assent, these proposed amendments would send a shiver down the spines of journalists working in the British Virgin Islands”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “Governments around the world are currently using these kinds of insult and cybercrime laws to prosecute reporters and silence independent media. If the BVI leaves this possibility open to current or future administrations, it has the potential to create a chilling effect on the territory’s journalists.”

He added: “The governor should withhold assent on this bill to give the BVI legislature time to revisit these clauses to ensure the proposed amendments are in line with regional and international standards.”

Problematic clauses

The first problematic clause is Section 14A of the VI bill, which criminalizes sending any electronic message that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” or that is sent “for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience”.

The bill’s vague wording and broad scope means it would be open to misinterpretation and exploitation by government officials or powerful businessmen seeking to target journalists or commentators because of critical coverage. There is also concern about disproportionately harsh punishments included in the bill.

The editor of the local newspaper BVI Beacon, Freeman Rogers, told IPI he fears the clause could have major repercussions for journalists. “If the bill is passed into law, we believe the media would almost certainly be stifled by the threat or actuality of prosecution for doing nothing more than its job”, he said.

Meanwhile, Section 14B of the proposed bill prohibits using a computer to defame another person, with penalties up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The amendment effectively extends the country’s existing criminal code on defamation to the digital sphere. While criminal libel exists in the BVI, the law is very rarely enforced.

However, Mr Rogers believes the new regulation on “electronic defamation” would be a “giant step backward” as it could help to “legitimize this existing legal relic” – all at a time when neighbouring Caribbean countries have been abolishing criminal defamation laws altogether.

Since 2012, Grenada, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda have repealed criminal defamation, while Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic have partially lifted such provisions.

Only one other country in the region has moved in the opposite direction. In 2016, St. Vincent and the Grenadines passed cybercrime legislation that punishes online defamation with up to two years in prison.

A similar proposed cybercrime amendment was introduced in Grenada in 2013, but scrapped a year later following an outcry from the IPI and other press freedom groups around the world.