Rights groups engage stakeholders on need to protect personal data in Sierra Leone 

Edward Vamboi: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 02 September 2021:

The Citizens Advocacy Network (CAN, in collaboration with ICT Users Association (ASUTIC), last Monday convened a press conference in Freetown to discuss  the challenges of personal data protection in Sierra Leone.

Present at the meeting were representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation, the National Telecommunication Commission (NATCOM), Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Sierra Leone Bar Association, National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA), the Independent Media Commission (IMC), the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC).

According to the Executive Director of the Citizens Advocacy Network (CAN), Thomas Moore Conteh, Data protection is a fundamental right set out in Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states that everyone has the right to the protection of their personal data.

Such data, he highlighted, must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned, or some other legitimate basis laid down by law.

He said that his organization believes everyone has the right of access to their and the right to have it rectified if there are errors, adding that compliance must be subject to controls by an independent authority.

Thomas Moore Conteh stated that the Citizens Advocacy Network also believes that every individual is entitled to having their personal information used in a fair and legal way, and made available to them when they ask for a copy.

He said that given the fact that the use of computers is generally growing among the local population in the country, concerns are high about the issue of cybersecurity and the protection of personal data.

Thomas argued that if the information and/or data of Sierra Leoneans are not protected, they can be exploited with impunity for either commercial or even more serious nefarious ends.

He underscored how such a situation underlines the urgency for the protection of Personal Data in Sierra Leone, starting with the establishment of a legal framework in accordance with the Malabo Convention and other international treaties or conventions to which Sierra Leone is a signatory.

Thomas added that Sierra Leone currently lacks a comprehensive legislation upholding citizens’ right to data protection/privacy, and said that the absence of a law that specifically addresses data protection/privacy has left a regulatory gap which undermines citizens’ rights and potentially opens the door to data exploitation by private and public entities.

The rights activist maintained that whereas the progress of the Cybersecurity Act of 2020 is a welcome development by the current Government to regulate the cyberspace, the passing of a Data Protection Law would further strengthen those efforts immeasurably.

He said there are rumours of steps being taken by the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation to work on a Data Protection Bill as well, that can sit alongside the recently passed Cyber Security Act.

He informed that Sierra Leone is a signatory to the 2010 Economic Community of West African States (‘ECOWAS’) Supplementary Act A/SA.1/01/10 on Personal Data Protection within ECOWAS.

“Interestingly, the ECOWAS Act requires each Member State to establish a Data Protection Authority that will be responsible for ensuring that Personal Data is processed in compliance with the provisions of the ECOWAS Act,” he outlined, disclosing how Sierra Leone is yet to ratify the ECOWAS Act domestically and establish a Data Protection Authority.

He said that once the ECOWAS Act has been ratified and comes into force domestically any entity that intends to collect and process personal data of a private individual shall be required to make a formal request to the data protection authority.

The rights activist argues that in respect of the foregoing facts, it is critically worthy to note that Data protection and Cybersecurity Laws are very essential to safeguarding against data breaches.

He further underscored that the purpose of the stakeholder’s engagement is primarily to promote discussions among State actors, civil society and the fourth estate on the need for an enactment of a comprehensive legislation on Personal Data Protection in Sierra Leone.

In his contribution, the Director-General of the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA), Mohamed Mubashir Massaquoi stated that the institution is mandated in its law (Section 25) to provide certain information in relation to births, adoptions, deaths, marriages, nullities or divorces to several Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies for specific purposes.

He mentioned that the enactment of a data protection law will greatly determine how these data and information are shared with these MDAs which will protect the individuals to which the personal data and information relates.

“A data protection Law in Sierra Leone will greatly improve the management and security of personal data of individuals kept by the NCRA. It will set out the procedures to be followed in order for the NCRA and other institutions to collect data from individuals while also informing individuals of their right to consent to the sharing of their personal data or information for processing and transmission to other data processors,” he stated.

The DG further informed participants present that prior to the enactment of the NCR Act, Civil Registration functions and management of population data was governed by several statutes and laws including the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1983, the National Registration Act 2008, as well as several other legislations indirectly related to the Civil Registration System.

He added that the process of Civil Registration was therefore fragmented, truncated, and uncoordinated thus dictating the risk of data loss, abuse and misuse.

The DG pointed out that the National Civil Registration Act of 2016 was enacted for the harmonization, consolidation and integration of all existing laws and regulations into a single coherent legal framework to regulate and implement Civil Registration services and ensure that Vital Statistics are compiled and disseminated with Identity Cards linked to the Civil Registration system.

The DG also informed participants at the meeting that in July this year, Cabinet approved the establishment of a Data Protection Policy, Act and Regulation for Sierra Leone and that there is a Working Group comprising of several MDAs including Ministry of Information and Communications, NATCOM, Right to Access information, Ministry of Internal Affairs, the NCRA, Expert  Legal Consultants and other Stakeholders who are currently looking at the drafts of these documents – Policy, Bill and Regulation.

He noted that the Working Group will present final drafts of the documents by the end of September, 2021, ‘which will be subject to review in the form of comprehensive and extensive nationwide consultations.’

The DG further informed participants that the NCRA has already received valuable inputs and support from its Development Partners into those drafts. He assured the Citizens Advocacy Network and other stakeholders present of a Data Protection Policy soonest.

“I will like to assure all present here today that at NCRA, we pride ourselves in protecting and safeguarding  the personal and sensitive data of citizens and non-citizens who are resident in Sierra Leone which are registered with the Authority  and that we are committed to ensuring that the Data Protection Law, Policy and Regulation is established and enacted before the end of the year with the support of other MDAs and Development Partners and I request that  you all present here especially the host of this engagement, Citizens Advocacy Network, support the process when the nationwide consultations shall commence,” the DG stated.

The DG concluded by encouraging Civil Society organizations (CSO’s), the Media and other interested groups to work with the Authority by supporting the process in various ways possible in order to make the effort a success.

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