The adage better late than never is what mirrors the recent engagement between the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), and the Ministry of Information and Communications on the Cyber Crime Bill.
The Minister, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, took the cross section of the SLAJ Executive and the National Coordinator of the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) through a power-point presentation on key aspects of the bill and responded to what it calls “certain misconceptions” of the proposed legislation.
The Minister described the powers the bill gives to his office as overwhelming and rejected them entirely; saying that no minister or institution should have such powers.
The SLAJ President, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, firstly expressed his disappointment that the media fraternity until now was left out of crucial consultations that took place during the process of drafting the bill.
Nevertheless, Nasralla said SLAJ is not averse to the enactment of legislation that seeks to enhance protection, security and responsible use of the cyberspace, but that the Association is concerned about a possible interference with the civic space and infringement on fundamental human rights of free speech and people’s privacy.
He informed the Ministry that SLAJ has consulted its in-house lawyers and international press freedom organizations for technical and legal opinion on the bill.
SLAJ and the MRCG, he said, will hold a workshop with media leaders and journalists to discuss the bill and make valid inputs that will be submitted to the ministry and the Sierra Leone Parliament.
Meanwhile, the Coordinator of the Cyber Security Unit in the Ministry, Mr. Morie Saffa, apologised on behalf of the ministry for leaving SLAJ and key media stakeholders like the IMC, RAIC and MRCG out of initial consultations on the drafting of the bill, but noted that it is never too late for the media to make valid input to the bill, which has now been tabled in Parliament.
10 GRAVE DANGERS BEHIND THE PROPOSED CYBERCRIME LAW 2020
1. Section 4(2) of the proposed Cybercrime law 2020 states that the fact that evidence has been generated, transmitted or seized from or identified in a search shall not in itself prevent that evidence from being presented, relied upon or admitted.
This shifts a heavy burden on the accused to challenge the authenticity of the digital evidence rather than on the prosecution to prove its authenticity.
You might not think much of this until you are a poor journalist or citizen with little or no means or knowledge/expert skills to challenge such digital evidence.
2. The search and seizure of stored computer data power given to the police under Section 5, pursuant to a search warrant order by a judge, is grossly broad. There is no provision that protects journalists, lawyers, doctors etc. from compelled disclosure of confidential information stored in digital form. By this section, anyone including a journalist might have their right to hold confidential information interfered with or perhaps their means of work and livelihood restricted.
3. Section 5(4) states that where the police believe that the data sought to be seized is stored in another computer, the police officer may extend the search to such other systems. In essence, a police officer may apply for a search warrant order from a judge to search or seize the computer of Mr. A but by this subsection, he is authorised to extend that search to Mr. B, Sister C, Brother D, Nephew E, Niece F and perhaps hundreds of their cousins. There is no provision in this subsection that requires the police to reapply for further authorisation. Although subsection 7 creates an offence for misuse of the search power, we all know what our police are capable of doing. If they can take a photo-frame as evidence, what canâ€™t they do given the broad scope of this law?
4. There is no provision of how and where seized or recorded data or computer systems are stored and for how long it can be stored to preserve such information in the event of a discontinuance of criminal investigations. Information critical to journalists and other persons can be severely compromised if there are no such safeguards.
5. Section 7(1) mandates the production of data information to the police by an order of court, from a person or entity based in Sierra Leone or offering their services in SL for e.g. Orange Network, Facebook, Twitter etc. Under this subsection, all of oneâ€™s personal data could be given to the police. Where there are no data protection laws providing safeguards, this could be a recipe for disaster especially for social media activism or citizen journalism.
6. Sections 9 and 10 provide for real-time collection of traffic and content data by the police by an order of court, through a service provider. These sections also provide that measures shall be taken to maintain the privacy of other users, customers and third parties. But where are these measures? We canâ€™t leave them to the conjectures and discretion of the police. Mind you, this order can be given in respect of anyone-including members of the opposition, media practitioners, activists etc. Again, where there are no data protection laws, critically important data might come into the hands of the police or the service provider during this period and there is very little provision for accountability and safeguards.
7. By Section 25, merely using, copying information or downloading data from a website could constitute an offence notwithstanding the information being available on a public platform. Just the copying and transferring to your other device or to a WhatsApp group could be a crime. You donâ€™t have to do anything more with the information or data transferred.
8. Section 27 makes it an offence to intercept non-public transmissions of data from a computer system, the transmission of which threatens national security etc. I can easily see Africanist Press and many other investigative journalists falling foul of this a million times over. Because, once you canâ€™t state your source, it is deemed unlawfully intercepted. Again, there is no protection for the work of especially investigative journalists in this section.
9. Parent laws create both offences and penalties. The several provisions in this proposed law which give the Minister of Information the power to specify penalties for the various offences are at odds with fair trial rights of accused persons. The law which creates the offence should specify the penalty. Statutory legislations do not undergo the same legislative scrutiny as primary legislations. Ministers are usually granted powers to make rules and procedure but not to determine punishment for offences in a primary legislation. Our ministers already have enough powers!
10. Section 35 is the resurrected repealed Part V of the Public Order Act 1965. By subsection 2, sending or sharing offensive, menacing character, annoying, insulting, and hateful, and ill-will etc. (other species of defamation and libel) messages is an offence. Although, subsection 3 excludes messages or other matters done in interest of the public, this provision undoes the gains of the repeal of the criminal libel laws. By the time the courts determine that an activist or a journalist posted something in the interest of the public, they would have spent many days, months and perhaps years in detention during the course of investigation and prosecution. As we have always advocated, civil redresses can be legislated, to take care of the Kutubu Koromas and the Adebayors in our society.
Worthy of note is the fact that the words â€œfreedom of expression or right to hold and disseminate informationâ€, are not mentioned in the Act. This law would definitely limit free expression, but no regard has been paid to such fundamental freedom. Similarly, the proposed National Cyber security Advisory Council does not have any representative of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists or the Sierra Leone Bar Association. These two bodies are critical in striking a balance between upholding fundamental right and regulating bad behaviour in the digital space.
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