VIENNA – Grenada quietly allowed a controversial electronic defamation bill to become law last October despite government promises of reform, the International Press Institute (IPI) has learned from local sources.
On Sept. 23, 2013, Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, responding to concerns that IPI and other groups had raised about the Electronic Crimes Bill, publicly announced: “I have agreed to make the necessary changes, after having discussions with members of the local and regional media, so that there will be no doubt about the intention of the country.”
However, no changes were made. Instead, on the same day that Mitchell promised to reform the bill, Governor-General Cécile La Grenade granted it royal assent.
According to Grenada’s official Government Gazette, the Electronic Crimes Act was published on Oct. 3, 2013.
Last week, Grenadian news outlets, citing a government minister as the source, reported that the law was now in effect.
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”.
“We are, 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,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said.
“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.”
She added: “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.”
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.
In addition to its other concerns, IPI has criticised the law’s broad application.
According to Section 3, 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”.
That clause was also not altered.
The law 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 commented: “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”
“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”, she added.
Last week, Grenada’s Communications Minister Gregory Bowen reportedly told GBN News that the Act was now in effect (that a law is “gazetted” does not by itself imply that the law is in effect; in this case, the published version states that the Act would come into effect at “a date to be fixed”).
In a recording broadcast by the station, the minister claimed that the government “went to the people who had concerns and all of that would have been clarified.”
The news has stirred public debate in Grenada over the Prime Minister’s Sept. 23 statement.
Kem Jones, a local radio host on 90.1 LiveWire, said today on his morning programme: “We were given a promise that this particular bill, that before assenting to it, it would be changed so that it would reflect the true nature of the Grenadian people.”
Jones told listeners that the development demonstrated: “The government can deceive you – say one thing and do the next.”
The manner in which the Mitchell government has proceeded to enact the Electronic Crime Bill has not goner down well with Sports Journalist Michael Bascombe who is based in New York in the United States.
Bascombe made the following comment on the issue: “… I’m very disappointed with the Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG), an organisation which I once headed and considered will fulfill the dreams and aspirations of some of our forefathers – the likes of T.A. Marryshow and Alister Hughes, and even Leslie Pierre.
“I am also disappointed with some of my media colleagues who continue to remain silent on this issue. This is not about whether it will affect the media or not, but criminalising expression and opinion. Who determines that my comments are “grossly offensive”, “annoying” or “insulting”?
“Here is my plug now! Couldn’t they have spent some of that time used in drafting and passing this bill into ensuring that the National Sports Policy is implemented? However, of particular interest to me is this: “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”.