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SLAJ Raises Concerns Over Enactment of the Cyber Crime Bill

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By Ranger

The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) on the 23rd March 2021 met with officials of the Ministry of Information and Communications to start engagement on the Cyber Crime Bill.

Mohamed Rahman Swarray, the Minister of information and Communications took the cross-section of 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 he 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, 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 a 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, 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.

IT was indicated that in the past, politicians in Sierra Leone would invoke sections of the notorious Public Order Act that criminalized libel to suppress free speech and the Press. Several sections of that Act were repealed in 2020.

But the proposed cyber-crime legislation that has been tabled in the Parliament of Sierra Leone by President Bio’s Government, is even more punitive than the Public Order Act (POA). Whereas POA’s maximum sentence is two years, the cyber-crime Bill allows for sentences of up to five years for actions deemed “cyber-crimes.”

Everyone is a potential target for criminalization of speech if the ruling party deems one’s online content offensive.

The Bill, in itself, as raised by a media practitioner lacks clear definitions of what constitutes a cyber-crime, ceding too much power to the Minister of Information to draw regulations and determine punitive measures.

This is what journalist and free speech campaigner – Alhaji Koroma, who like many in and out of Sierra Leone are concerned about the proposed legislation, said:
“Digitization has been a huge boost to Sierra Leoneans in recent years, making new spaces available online to freely express and share sensitive views and information on the country’s political and socio-economic issues”.

He lamented that Sierra Leone’s current laws on free speech in digital spaces do not adequately protect citizens from targeted harassment or arbitrary threats and arrests.
Alhaji said a proposed Legislation could turn a citizen’s 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.

Last year, when violent incidents broke out in Tombo and Makeni, the Government quickly pointed to a social media personality.

In a bid to tackle the situation, the Government proposed a cybersecurity bill that would deter people from listening and sharing virulent messages that spread hate, incitement and invectives against ruling-party politicians.

Sahr Mattew Nyuma, Sierra Leone’s 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.”

Common issues on cybersecurity laws and regulations, including cybercrime, applicable laws, preventing attacks, specific sectors, corporate governance, litigation, insurance and investigatory and police powers — have already passed the pre-legislative stage in parliament.

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

The Director-General of the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), Daniel Kaitibie, also welcomed the cybersecurity law and said the nation is working to reform digital rights.

However, the proposed bill spreads fear and grants further legal pretext to clamp down on dissent — to seize the age’s prized possession — the mobile phone.

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

The cybercrime bill is said to be “a new Public Order Act for the electronic age,” according to Mohamed Gibril Sesay, in his March 19 editorial in the Sierra Leone’s Standard Times.

The Minister of State and opposition politician has openly condemned the cybersecurity bill in his op-ed.

In the past, politicians would invoke Sections of the Public Order Act that criminalized libel to suppress free speech and the Press. Several Sections of that Act were repealed in 2020.

It must be sounded clearly that the the cybercrime Bill is even more punitive than the Public Order Act. Whereas POA’s maximum sentence is two years, the cybercrime bill allows for sentences up to five years for actions deemed “cyber- crimes.”

Everyone is a potential target for criminalization of speech if the ruling party deems one’s online content offensive.
Lamentably, the bill lacks clear definitions of what constitutes a cyber-crime, 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 Officer’s 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.

(C) The Calabash Newspaper

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