ST. GEORGE’S: The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) says Grenada has quietly allowed a controversial electronic defamation bill to become law despite government promises of reform.
IPI, which together with the regional media group, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), has been campaigning to get regional governments to remove criminal libel from law books, said that the administration of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell had given an undertaking to deal with concerns about the Electronic Crimes Bill in September, 2013.
IPI said despite the assurances, no changes were made and instead, on the same day that Dr. Mitchell promised to reform the bill, Governor-General Cécile La Grenade granted it royal assent. IPI quoted from Grenada’s official Government Gazette to show that the Electronic Crimes Act was published on October 3, 2013.
“The published version, seen by IPI, contains no alterations to the specific sections that regional and international press freedom groups highlighted as problematic. These included Section 6, which would mandate up to one year in prison for sending by electronic means information that is ‘grossly offensive’ or is known to be false but was reproduced in order to cause ‘annoyance’, ‘insult’ or ‘ill will’,” IPI said in a statement.
IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said the international organization was “indeed, surprised to find out that this bill was granted royal assent on the same day that the prime minister promised to reform it to better reflect international standards on freedom of expression.
“Certainly, this calls into question whether the government was ever really serious about ensuring that this Act would not harm the free flow of information and opinion in Grenada. We hope the government will prove us wrong on this point by quickly introducing an amendment that would answer the significant concerns regarding this Act.”
IPI said other controversial sections left untouched include Section 25, which provides that a police officer may, without a warrant, arrest a person “reasonably suspected of committing an offence” under the Act; and Section 16, which punishes “electronic stalking” – defined as “intimidating, coercing, or annoying another person using an electronic system” – with up to three years in prison.
IPI has also criticized the law’s broad application.
It said Section 3 of the law applies not only to all residents, visitors, and transit passengers in Grenada, but also to “any person, of any nationality or citizenship or in any place outside or inside Grenada, having an effect on the security of Grenada or its nationals”.
IPI said that the clause was also not altered and “is apparently intended to target social networking sites as well as the reader comment sections of online media”.
Trionfi acknowledged that a legitimate interest exists in addressing defamatory content in those media. However, she warned such actions would have consequences.
“Requiring these types of websites to police all content posted by others would not only impose an unreasonable burden on the hosts, but lead to a chilling effect on public speech as the hosts seek to limit potential liability,” she said. “A better solution would be to allow hosts time to remove defamatory content if they receive a complaint, with the understanding that they would be subject to normal provisions in civil defamation law if they fail to do so.”
Meanwhile, IPI has congratulated Trinidad & Tobago for passing legislation to partially repeal criminal defamatory libel offences.
“It is a monumental step in the right direction we don’t take lightly,” said IPI executive director, Alison Bethel-McKenzie. “While the international community celebrates this accomplishment, we remain concerned about arguments advanced by some members of the House of Representatives against what we believe to be a progressive Libel and Defamation (Amendment) Bill 2013.
“Trinidad & Tobago is a leading member of the Caribbean Community and is obliged to uphold its commitment as a signatory to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inclusive of Article 19 which holds that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions with interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
She said criminal defamation has no place in a democracy.
“It is not a legislated provision that is intended only to punish the media and other purveyors of information, analyses and opinion. It is a law that impacts every citizen in every corner of the nation. What it means is that anyone – anyone – can be jailed for publishing or broadcasting defamatory material, even if that material is published inadver