Opposition Leader, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo, has expressed disappointment at the fact that, despite being categorical about the position of the Parliamentary Opposition on the Cybercrime Bill, “falsehoods” are still being peddled to convey the impression that the PPP/C supported the increasingly controversial Bill, which includes a section on sedition.
In an interview with this publication, he reasoned that such acts are either reflective of an unwillingness to directly criticize the APNU/AFC Coalition Government – part of the balancing act employed by some commentators – or can be summed up purely as an effort to mislead Guyanese.
At his Monday (April 30, 2018) press conference, Jagdeo acknowledged that the Parliamentary Opposition “dropped the ball” in addressing the Cybercrime Bill, given the absence of PPP/C Parliamentarians at the meetings of the Select Committee dealing with the Bill.
“You can blame us and some of the MPs for not attending the meetings (of the Parliamentary Select Committee) and it would be justified… the PPP, and I speak for the PPP, does not support this inclusion, this undemocratic inclusion, in the Cybercrime Bill. In fact, we are opposed to it…the fact is that several MPs on our side were members of the Special Select Committee, which met several times to consider the provisions of this Bill, and were absent sometimes. However, their presence alone, being named to that committee, does not elevate to support by the PPP” he said.
The Opposition Leader was categorical in reiterating that the PPP/C is not supportive of the controversial Bill. “This provision has no place in a democratic Guyana, in a free Guyana. In a Guyana where free speech is an important part of our democracy, where freedom of expression is defined and protected by our Constitution. This Bill has no place,” Jagdeo said.
According to Jagdeo, after being tabled in the National Assembly on August 4, 2016, with no hard copy made available to Parliamentarians, the Cybercrime Bill was sent to a Parliamentary Select Committee. At the February 15, 2018 meeting, the controversial Clause 18 about sedition was fashioned, according to the minutes of the Committee’s report, which also made clear that no PPP/C MP was present for the meeting.
The Opposition Leader posited that Clause 18 is reminiscent of the old National Security Act, which was upheld under the Burnham era, but repealed in the late 90’s. “The insertion by the Government of Guyana of (this) provision in the Cybercrime Bill could mean or could have grave implications for freedom of speech in Guyana. In fact, looking at the provision or that specific provision of the Bill, which was inserted in the Special Select Committee, is reminiscent of the old National Security Act that obtained in the period of undemocratic rule.
“….that Act was, specifically, designed to stifle dissent and to take action against individuals who may disagree with the Government of Guyana. It was a repressive tool in the hands of a repressive Government. In Guyana, we have seen a trend towards unilateralism. We have seen a trend where the Government acts with impunity regardless of laws or provisions of our Constitution or in direct contravention of provisions in our Constitution. So, I see this insertion in this new Bill as another tool available to a Government that is becoming increasingly undemocratic in its march towards a dictatorship” said Jagdeo.
He argued that it is for these reasons that Guyanese must fight to ensure that “this retrograde step” to charge people for sedition, an “archaic” offense, is not passed into law.
“If you look through quite a few elements of that provision, you will see that they are not so much concerned about people in Guyana or protecting their rights. The entire Cybercrime Bill (an envisioned by the former PPP/C government) was for a purpose, not to protect the Government of Guyana, but to protect our children against child pornography, to protect people against electronic assault on their privacy; it was to protect the people of the country in their business, so that their data or their computers would not be compromised that cyberspace in Guyana without overregulating; without affecting content of speech that it would have some rules that people can’t act illegally in harming others. That was the purpose of the Bill.”
He added, “They have converted this. By inserting this provision, the purpose and something all Guyanese would agree to, that is, protecting all of us and our children, they have converted it into protection for Government and the Ministers….we already have laws protecting all of our citizens and I would assume that the Prime Ministers and the President and Ministers are citizens of Guyana and they too are afforded the same sort protection that we all enjoy under certain law against criminal acts. Why do they need a special provision in this Bill to protect the interest of only those categories of people?”
An about turn
Meanwhile, touching on the position taken by AFC Leader Raphael Trotman who indicated that if the sedition clause is not amended AFC Parliamentarians will vote against it, Jagdeo said the “about turn” is similar to the one taken by the AFC against the controversial parking meter project, in that “despite having been discussed at Cabinet, where several AFC Members sit, the Party’s Leader has now indicated that his AFC Parliamentarians on the government side will vote against the increasingly controversial Cybercrime Bill.”
Trotman’s comments comes after the Parliamentary Opposition, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, sections of the trade union movement, the Guyana Press Association and other civil society groups have objected to the Bill over the sedition clause.
According to Jagdeo “like the parking meter project, widespread objections preceded the AFC’s shift in position.”
Clause 18 of the Bill states that: “A person commits an offence of sedition if the person, whether in or out of Guyana, intentionally publishes, transmits or circulates by use of a computer system, a statement or words, either spoken or written, a text, video, image, sign, visible representation or other thing, that: a) brings or attempts to bring into hatred or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in Guyana.”
Disaffection, according to the Bill, includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. A person who commits the offence under this clause is liable on conviction on indictment to serve up to five years or as much as life in prison.