cybercrime bill
Premier Andrew Fahie affirmed his support of recently enacted cybercrime legislation during House of Assembly on Feb. 20. (File Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

Governor Gus Jaspert has written to Premier Andrew Fahie regarding “some concerns raised” about proposed cybercrime legislation that has been drawing harsh condemnation from free-speech advocates since before it was passed by the House of Assembly last October, Mr. Jaspert said last month.

“At the moment, it’s for the premier to consider how he wishes to move forward,” the governor said during a Dec. 17 press conference, adding that he would wait for Mr. Fahie’s response before deciding his next course of action.

The premier did not respond to the Beacon’s requests for comment last week, and the Governor’s Office confirmed Jan. 7 that Mr. Jaspert was still waiting for a response.

The bill — sections of which are nearly identical to clauses in a proposed Grenada law that were deleted years ago amid an international outcry from free-speech groups — will not take effect until the governor assents to it.

Proposed law

The bill in question — a raft of proposed amendments to the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act 2014 — would increase penalties for several existing offences, add new ones to the list, and give the police broader powers to investigate suspected wrongdoing.

When legislators debated the bill in August, they said it would help deter cyberbullying, character assassination, electronic blackmail and other nefarious online behaviour.

At the time, however, press freedom organisations abroad expressed strong misgivings about certain sections in the bill. Of particular concern, they told the Beacon, is a clause criminalising electronic defamation, which the bill would punish with up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine, as well as a provision that could punish anyone who sends a “grossly offensive” email with up to 14 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.

Four separate media groups warned that these provisions were dangerously out of step with international standards and represented a threat to journalism and free speech.

The HOA, however, passed the bill on Oct. 18 after a debate that took place in committee and was not open to the public.

Public criticism

Last month two of the media organisations released public statements repeating their concerns and calling on Mr. Jaspert to withhold his assent unless revisions are added to protect free speech and a free press.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute — which describes itself as “a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom” — issued a statement on Dec. 3 criticising portions of the bill it said could threaten this freedom.

The statement includes comments from Beacon Editor Freeman Rogers expressing similar concerns.

“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 Prasad said in the statement. “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.”

Mr. Prasad went on to urge the governor to withhold his assent on the bill to “give the BVI legislature time to revisit these clauses to ensure the proposed amendments are in line with regional and international standards.”

In the statement, Mr. Prasad repeated concerns that he told the Beacon in August about Section 14A of the bill, which criminalises “sending offensive messages through a computer.”

The provision specifically prohibits 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 maximum penalty for breaching the prohibition is a 14-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.

Mr. Prasad argued that the vague wording of this clause could allow powerful figures to target journalists for critical coverage. He also restated his assessment that the criminalisation of defamation represents a “giant step backward” at a time when many countries in the region are aiming to abolish such laws.

Another statement

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a similar public statement on Dec 23.

“The British Virgin Islands’ legislators have passed a bill criminalising free speech, and journalists will likely be among its first victims if it is signed into law,” said CPJ Central and South America Programme Coordinator Natalie Southwick in New York. “Governor [Gus] Jaspert should reject the bill and send it back to the House of Assembly so members can ensure that it protects free expression. Criminal defamation has no place in a democracy.”

Ms. Southwick also echoed concerns that she expressed to the Beacon in August.

“Our position is that defamation shouldn’t be adjudicated in criminal court: It should be a civil matter,” she explained. “The international community is moving in that direction. This is really kind of a step backwards.”
Representatives from Reporters Without Borders and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers expressed similar concerns in August.

Grenada bill

Two of the controversial sections of the VI’s cybercrime bill are nearly identical to clauses that were struck from a proposed law in Grenada years ago after an international outcry from free-speech groups.

The originally proposed version of Grenada’s 2013 Electronic Crimes Act would have punished “sending offensive messages through communication services” with up to one year in prison, and it would have given police broad powers to make arrests without a warrant.

However, those provisions never took effect.

Before the bill was brought into force in 2016, the Grenada Parliament withdrew the two clauses in early 2014 in response to pressure from groups including the International Press Institute and the Association of Caribbean Media Workers — two of the same groups that are now criticising the VI bill, which appears to have been copied largely from the original Grenada version that never became law.

Section 14A in the VI bill is a near-verbatim copy of the “offensive messages” clause removed from the Grenada bill — apart from the proposed penalties, which are much more severe in the VI version.

Additionally, section 14P mirrors Section 25 of the original Grenada bill, which would have allowed a police officer to arrest someone “reasonably suspected” of violating the act without a warrant — another provision that was struck down in Grenada before the law took effect.

Several other provisions in the VI bill also closely mirror the Grenada law, including sections criminalising electronic forgery, electronic fraud, spoofing and violation of privacy, as well as clauses regulating the disclosure of data, privacy, and search and seizure.

The Grenada connection is not unique to the cybercrime bill. Newly proposed VI laws governing electronic transactions are also nearly identical to other Grenada legislation passed in recent years.

Three bills introduced last month in the House of Assembly — the Electronic Filing Act 2019, the Electronic Transfer of Funds Act 2019, and the Electronic Transactions Act 2019 — all closely mirror 2013 Grenada laws with similar titles.

Attempts to reach Attorney General Baba Aziz, whose office often drafts VI legislation, were unsuccessful. Last year, Mr. Aziz also did not respond to attempts to contact him about the cybercrime law.