Cybercrime Bill if Passed; Gives Minister Absolute Power

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Cybercrime Bill If Passed; Gives Minister Absolute Power

If it becomes law, anyone and absolutely everyone can claim that once you run foul, punishment is determined only by the Minister.” This is part of a segment in the proposed Cybercrime bill and if passed into law it would give absolute power to the Minister to do as he pleases with reckless abandon.

Meanwhile, digitization has been a huge boost to the world and Sierra Leone is not an exemption. It has in recent years, been making new spaces available online for citizens around the globe to freely express and share sensitive views and information on their countries political and socio-economic issues. The use of smartphones and computer related gadgets have been the driving force of this social media age. Now, a proposed cybercrime bill could turn a citizens smartphone into a crime scene.

Parliament proposed the bill after a series of violent incidents last year that were sparked by social media messages. It intends to offer clarity regarding cybercrime offenses and punishments and better handle national security and crime in digital spaces.

In a bid to tackle situations of cyber-bullying, the government proposed a cyber-security bill that would deter people from listening and sharing virulent messages like hate, incitement and invectives..

Sahr Matthew Nyuma, Leader of Government Business in parliament, warned last August in parliament that “everyone will be vulnerable if the country does not enact tough laws to deal with the situation.”

Cyber Crime Act 2020 covering common issues on cyber security laws and regulations, including cybercrime, applicable laws, preventing attacks, specific sectors, corporate governance, litigation, insurance and investigatory and police powers has already passed the pre-legislative stage in parliament.

The Cyber Crime Bill of 2020 is a sinister improvement of the Public Order Act of 1965. The Bio-led government gifted the people of Sierra Leone with a gift with one hand and it is attempting to take it with the other hand. The information on your phones and computers are no longer safe” AdyMacauley, former ACC Czar asserted. 

The 1965 Public Order Act was passed under the SLPP Administration led by Albert Margai, and was roundly condemned by the APC. But, despite coming to power and remaining in power from 1965 to 1992 and then again from 2007 to 2018, the APC did nothing to repeal the Public Order Act. Under the Bio Administration the Public Order Act was repealed in 2020, but now, the Ministry of Information and Communications has drafted the Cyber Crime Bill which contains these wordings;

Section 35

2)  A person, including a corporation, partnership, or association, who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of a computer system or network that –

(a) is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent; or

(b) he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent, commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to such fine or term of imprisonment as the Minister may, by Regulation made under this Act, prescribe.

Anything can be regarded as subjectively offensive [35-2a], and the same thing that might not offend someone one day or moment, might not offend the same person the next day or moment.

So the Public Order Act of 1965 was repealed and the trumpets were blown and the drums were beaten by the Bio Administration, the SLPP, and SLPP supporters. It was seen objectively as a good thing. But now, the draft of the Cyber Crimes Bill has Section 35 (2) in it. If it becomes law, anyone and absolutely everyone can claim that once you run foul, punishment is determined only by the Minister.

Some well-meaning Sierra Leoneans are asking these following important questions:

“How do we determine a message to be grossly offensive? Could certain level of criticism of our leaders for example fall in that category and considered grossly offensive?

Could it be that certain words or statements we use to describe the conduct or behavior of our leaders can be considered as “indecent” or obscene” and as such a crime under this Bill?

These and many other questions are being asked by Sierra Leoneans all around the world, and it will be fair enough if the Ministry of Information and Communications can attempt to answer them since they are asking for public opinion on the proposed bill.  This Cybercrime bill if passed into law, will be more punitive than the repealed Public Order Act. Whereas the POA’s maximum sentence is two years, the cybercrime bill allows for sentence up to five years imprisonment for actions deemed “cybercrimes.”

 Everyone is a potential target for criminalization of speech if the ruling party deems one’s online content offensive. “Cyber Crime Bill 2020; a bad and contradictory law that citizens and protects service providers, proposing limits to business capacity, empowers Information Minister to determine punishment for unfriendly people and groups in Sierra Leone not merely for a safe national digital ecosystem,” Lawyer Ibrahim Sorie Kamara said.

In this digital age, the proposed Cybercrime law would be ten times more dangerous to media practice than the repealed Part V of the public Order Act of 1965. I see Journalists and Activists in long lines to Pademba Road. It is data protection law that we need, not a Cybercrime monster,” Lawyer Marrah asserted in his Twitter handle. 

Leader of the main opposition party All Peoples’ Congress in the well of Parliament, Chernor Ramadan Maju Bah, described the bill as sensitive because it affects everyone.

Several citizens and opposition members argue that the bill serves as a conduit for government suppression of digital rights and freedoms especially in instances where the government falters.

The cybercrime bill is “a new Public Order Act for the electronic age, writes Mohamed GibrilSesay, in a March 19 editorial in the Sierra Leone’s Standard Times. The minister of state and opposition politician has openly condemned the cyber security bill in his op-ed.

This is a bill that lacks clear definitions of what constitutes a cybercrime, ceding too much power to the Minister of Information to draw regulations and determine punitive measures.

Under Part III: Powers and Procedures, the bill also cedes too much power to the police to take away phones and computers and gives too much latitude to state agents to turn whatever phone of their choosing into a crime scene.” It prescribes methods through which computers or phones may be seized if a judge authorizes it. All that’s required to get the process started is the police officers belief that the seizure is justified. That’s where the potential for misuse looms very large against every journalist, civil society activist or an ordinary citizen who uses a phone or computer.

Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution doesn’t hold specific provisions for digital rights, but it makes it clear that all citizens hold the right to free speech under Chapter 3, which protects the rights to freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association. Several people have been called by the police to answer questions about what they put on social media even before the bill becomes a law.

When the bill was debated in Parliament recently, the Speaker gave the Minister of Information and Communications two weeks to sensitize the general public on the merits of the Cybercrime bill. The debate continues today.

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