By Marcia Braveboy
Caribbean News Now Senior Correspondent
ST GEORGE’S, Grenada — Just one week after acknowledging extensive local and international concern over a proposed new electronics crime bill, and its possible ability to suppress internet comment, the government of Grenada has once again been forced to clarify what it described as “misleading statements published by an international media watchdog.”
In a press statement on Wednesday, the Grenada government said it “seeks to clarify misleading comments from the Vienna based International Press Institute (IPI) stating that it has passed into law an Electronic Crimes bill. The government makes it clear, that it is false and inaccurate to state that a bill has been turned into law when such a process has not occurred on this island.”
The government said it has presented a draft bill to the Bar Association and other stakeholders for review and the bill has been debated in the House of Representatives, but has not yet reached the Senate for further debate.
The draft bill has also been circulated to regional and international stakeholders for review.
“Those comments have been taken on board and will be presented to the Upper House of Parliament at the appropriate time,” the government said.
However, the government’s explanation concerning the legislative process is seen by some observers to be somewhat disingenuous given the ruling party’s total control of all elected seats and the corresponding unlikelihood of any meaningful debate in parliament itself.
In response to the bill, IPI said that, a year after becoming the first Caribbean country to decriminalise libel, Grenada appeared to take a step in the opposite direction by approving the sweeping cyber-crimes bill that includes a provision for online defamation.
According to the Electronic Crimes Act 2013, those found guilty of “sending offensive messages through [electronic] communication services, etc.” face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to EC$100,000 (US$37,000 / €28,000). In addition to the undefined “offensive” language, the law also covers information known to be false that is intended to cause, among others, “annoyance, inconvenience, insult, or ill-will.”
The law appears intended to address defamation not only via social media, but also via user-generated content on news websites, usually in “comment sections.” These sections, which can be important avenues for average citizens to express opinions, have become controversial in the Caribbean and elsewhere as a forum for the proliferation of potentially libellous of even inciteful material.
Grenada’s minister for legal affairs, Elvin Nimrod, argued that the law was necessary “to protect society, especially those who are vulnerable to modern technology.”
|IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie|
“IPI absolutely appreciates that the advent of social media and the proliferation of user-generated comment have presented challenges for protecting the right to reputation. But we are disappointed that the Grenadian government has chosen to enact a new criminal law as a response, especially since just last year the government agreed with IPI that civil litigation, not criminal action, is appropriate for handling libel and defamation cases,” IPI executive director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.
She added: “Any additional law aimed at regulating this type of content is not only superfluous but also threatens to limit press freedom beyond what is necessary in a democratic society.”
In a widely criticised comment, Shere-Ann Noel, president of the Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG), an affiliate of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, told IPI that she did not think the law would prove to be a “hindrance to freedom of expression” to journalists on the island. But, she added, the law would affect “a couple of people” who practice anonymous, mean-spirited posting that has bedeviled media houses.
Following approval of the bill by the lower house of parliament, online bloggers have weighed in extensively on the issue, with some threatening not to visit Grenada if the bill passes in its draft form. Tourism is an important component of Grenada’s economy.
Meanwhile, MWAG president Noel has been backtracking on the issue after some of her colleagues expressed frustration over her response to the proposed law, with one going so far as to refer to her as a “village idiot” for her comments.
|Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell|
Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell, during his previous time as head of government (1995-2008), was noted for having an uneasy relationship with the press. In 1999, George Worme, then editor of Grenada Today, was arrested and charged with criminal libel after writing an editorial that accused Mitchell of bribery.
At that time, the issue of freedom of the press in Grenada had become a matter of great concern to the local media and others and, in June 2004, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a strongly-worded letter to then Prime Minister Mitchell, calling on him to “desist from any efforts to curtail the work of the press.”
The letter said the CPJ was “alarmed by the Grenadian government’s recent attempts to intimidate the local media, including legal actions against the press for reporting alleged wrongdoing by you.”
The organisation referred to a criminal libel lawsuit in Grenada brought by Mitchell against Miami-based financial newsletter Offshore Alert and its publisher.
Also, in May 2004, Leroy Noel, a Grenadian freelance reporter, was held for questioning about the content of an article that reported on connections between members of the ruling New National Party and people accused of corruption.
Four police officers detained Noel, who was a frequent contributor to our predecessor publication Caribbean Net News, while he was on his way to work at around 6:15 am. Authorities released Noel four hours later without charge.
“The recent actions of intimidation taken by your government are a clear attempt to obstruct Grenadian journalists from doing their work of disseminating information,” the CPJ told Mitchell.
In August 2007, Caribbean Net News was named in a writ issued in Grenada by Mitchell, alleging the publication of libelous statements contained in an article written by Lloyd Noel, a former attorney general of Grenada.
In his article, Noel referred to the apparent possibility that Mitchell was a US citizen, as well as a citizen of Grenada. The implication of this at the time, if true, was that Mitchell would likely have been disqualified by the Constitution of Grenada from standing for election as a Member of Parliament.
The assertion that Mitchell was a US citizen first surfaced in 2007 in pleadings filed in a New York court by victims of convicted fraudster Eric Restheiner seeking to recover the sum of US$1 million in cash allegedly paid to Mitchell by Restheiner.
According to Noel, the writ filed by Mitchell was another example of a frequently used ploy in Grenada to prevent parliamentary debate on such issues, given that the Speaker has consistently ruled that any such debate would then be sub judice.
Mitchell’s action was eventually dismissed by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court.