Last February, Trinidad and Tobago was praised by many human rights groups, including the International Press Institute (IPI), for approving legislation to partially decriminalised defamation. However, today press freedom advocates in the country are concerned about a cybercrime bill, currently being discussed in Parliament this week, which in its current language imposes disturbing restrictions on the work of the media.
“We are extremely concerned that the wide net cast by this bill, the lack of a public interest defence clause, and the inclusion of some problematic provisions would lead not only to the criminalisation of legitimate journalistic activity but also disregard fundamental journalistic rights and principles,” said Alison Bethel McKenzie, Executive Director of the Vienna-based IPI. “The criminalisation of defamation defined by Article 21 is in contradiction with recent amendments to the country’s libel law and in breach of international standards in this area.”
Under Clause 21 (2 and 3) of the proposed Cybercrime Bill, anyone who damages the reputation of another person; or subjects another person to public ridicule, contempt, hatred or embarrassment, commits an offence”, among others, faces fines of TTD $100,000 (or € 11, 480) and/or up to three years in jail.
“Furthermore, Clause 23, which imposes liabilities on the ‘director, manager, secretary’ of a media company, would necessarily lead to interference in the editorial process by media owners and publishers, in breach of the fundamental journalistic principle of editorial independence,” Bethel McKenzie noted.
Finally, Part IV of the Bill, which includes much needed provisions freeing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from liabilities related to information transmitted through websites they host, also authorizes the courts to order disclosure of information. “Under certain circumstances, this could force journalists to reveal their sources, in breach of their legal right and professional ethical duty to sources confidentiality,” said Barbara Trionfi, IPI Press Freedom Manager.
The Cybercrime Bill, 2014 was introduced on May 1 in the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament. According to local sources, a few members of the media were approached by the National Security Minister on June 18, ahead of four-day long weekend, to analyse any possible concerns on the cybercrime legislation. Yet, they were given until June 24 to present any apprehensions regarding the bill.
“A process of public consultation before a bill is introduced to Parliament is an important step in any democratic system. This allows stakeholders and groups that will be affected by the new legislation to provide input and advice and eventually leads to greater transparency and accountability in the law-making process,” Bethel McKenzie explained. “Two working days is not an acceptable time frame for such a consultation, as it does not leave sufficient time for relevant stakeholders to develop an informed opinion and provide relevant feed-back on complex draft legislation.”
“We ask that the Parliament give more time to the members of the media to highlight concerns in areas in which the bill, if passed, would affect journalists’ ability to carry out their work,” she added.
“One of the major concerns with regard to the Cybercrime Bill, 2014 is that it entirely lacks a clear public interest section,” IPI pointed out. ”Journalists must be able to collect and disseminate information about issues of public concern. The lack of a public interest clause effectively limits many forms of investigative journalism.”
“The International Press Institute reminds the Trinidad and Tobago government that while we welcomed their efforts to partially decriminalise defamation earlier this year, we are deeply concerned about the steps to introduce legislation that may infringe on the rights of journalists and other civil groups in the twin-island nation.