Concerns grow over Sierra Leone government’s proposed cyber-crimes legislation

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 25 March 2021:

As the debate continues over the rationale of the government of Sierra Leone’s proposed legislation on cyber-crimes which has gone through its second and penultimate reading in parliament, the minister of information – Mohamed Rahman Swarray has held whistle-stop meetings with students at the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown, and the Association of Journalists.

While most commentators including the Sierra Leone Telegraph agree there is need for a cyber-crimes legislation that will combat the unlawful use of digital technology to commit financial crimes, international money laundering, terrorism, and crimes against national information technology infrastructure, there are serious fears the new law will be used by the government and police against political opponents and those with whom the government disagrees to shut down democracy.

The curtailing of civil liberty and freedom of speech were the key reasons why president Bio in opposition, promised to abolish the notorious Criminal Libel Laws which formed part of the 1965 Public Order Act.

And last year, after much pressure from the media and stakeholders, president Bio reluctantly abolished those criminal libel laws which were used by successive governments to arrest, harass, and intimidate anyone that criticised the government, including the media.

Today, there are serious concerns those criminal libel laws are making their way once again into the country’s law books through the back door – using the proposed cyber-crimes legislation.

Two days ago, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), met with the Ministry of Information and Communications – Mohamed Rahman Swarray and took the opportunity to express its dissatisfaction with the Cyber Crime Bill and the legislative process.

According to SLAJ’s statement issued after the meeting, Minister Mohamed Rahman Swarray, responded to what it calls “certain misconceptions” of the proposed legislation.

“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 a legislation that seeks to enhance protection, security and responsible use of the cyber space, but that the Association is concerned about 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 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, and noted that it is never too late for the media to make valid input to the Bill, which has now been tabled in Parliament.”

Writing on social media, Augustine Sorie-Sengbe Marrah outlined some of the most serious dangers inherent in the proposed cyber-crimes legislation. This is what he said:

“10 DANGERS OF THE PROPOSED CYBERCRIME LAW

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.

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.

Section 5(4) states that where the police believes 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 can’t they do given the broad scope of this law?

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.

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 one’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.

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 can’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.

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 don’t have to do anything more with the information or data transferred.

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 can’t state your source, it is deemed unlawfully intercepted. Again, there is no protection for the work of especially investigative journalists in this section.

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!

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, hateful, 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.

Worthy of note is the fact that the words “freedom of expression or right to hold and disseminate information”, 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 Cybersecurity 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.” (END).

As the people of Sierra Leone rememeber the start of the bloody ten-year rebel war thirty years ago, questions are beng asked as to whether sucessive governments – including the current government had learnt any lessons at all.

Poor governance, high youth unemployment, poverty, abuse of State powers, curtailing of civil liberty anf free speech, were some of the root causes of that war that took the lives of over 50,000 people.

No government should preside over the return of a police State or quasi-military junta rule that will ultimately lead to chaos and another civil war.

The proposed cyber-crimes Bill as presently drafted, is a bad Bill that must not be allowed to become law in Sierra Leone.

1 Comment

  1. This cyber crime bill proposal makes for eye watering reading. Reading through the headlines makes you realise how much powers, if they go through parliament in their present form, is given to the courts and the police that won’t look out of place in an authoritarian state like North Korea to spy on its ordinary citizens. Who gives the government the right to snoop on its citizens? Surely that was not a manifesto promise. Vote for me so I can spy on you. Will you? I don’t think so. Talk of big brother is watching you, is taking it to a whole different level. There are no provisions or safe guards as to who is going to police the police. Data protection is toss out of the window. More like sweeping away all the data protection accorded to citizens by our constitution, and effectively leaving them exposed to the excess of state power.

    And if you find yourself under a dictatorship, it gives you the goosebumps, and doesn’t bear thinking about. And the speed at which this cyber crime Bill proposal came about, according to report, without much of consultation with stake holders, like journalists, and Internet providers, and most importantly the consumers, or general public that is going to be impacted heavily, makes you wonder what was the rush all about. Yes the state can regulate and punish those involved in the dark web, terrorism, promoting tribalism, violence, fraud, which I will say is bit rich coming from this corrupt government.

    But in taking those actions, the government has to strike a balance. We don’t want an over kill. The freedom of speech is embedded in our constitution. Safeguarding the rights of citizens is the duty of government as well. No one, including the government has the right to take that away. Its like trying to shut the safety valve to the air vent of our balloons of frustrations, and stopping us holding the government to account. One way or the other, citizens need to express their anger without restoring to violence. And freedom of speech is the one thing that renders us those guarantees. Any tinkering of those freedoms, people will be left with no option but take to the streets. And we don’t want that. Because we always get killed by trigger happy and over zealous police officers.

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