Sierra Leone’s proposed cyber-crime legislation is a threat to free speech and civil liberty

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 March 2021:

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 Several sections of that Act were repealed in 2020.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. And 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, says Alhaji Koroma – writing in the Global Voices

This is what journalist and free speech campaigner – Alhaji Koroma, who like many in and out of Sierra Leone is  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.

But Sierra Leone’s current laws on free speech in digital spaces do not adequately protect citizens from targeted harassment or arbitrary threats and arrests.

Now, a proposed Legislation could turn a citizen’s smartphone into a crime scene. (Proposed Cyber Security Bill goes through pre-legislative stage in parliament – SIERRA LEONE TELEGRAPH (thesierraleonetelegraph.com)

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, a western fishing village, and Makeni, a northern village, the government quickly pointed to a social media personality known as “Adebayor.”

Currently based in the Netherlands, Adebayor is an outspoken opposition voice who commands a large following within the country — particularly on WhatsApp.

Tombo and Makeni are both All People’s Congress (APC) opposition strongholds, where Adebayor felt villagers were being unfairly treated.

The nights before both incidents, Adebayor allegedly produced audio messages in which he called on youth to protest against decisions made by ruling-party authorities.

In May, Adeboyar reportedly provoked Tombo youth to protest against authorities’ COVID-19 restrictions that limited fishing to only 15 boats out of over 400. He allegedly claimed that the decision was politically motivated by ruling SLPP members to suppress APC supporters. Clashes resulted in two people dead.

Months later, Adebayor reportedly called on youth in Makeni to rebel against the Ministry of Energy’s decision to move a standby 1MW caterpillar generator from their city to another. He allegedly told youth that they shouldn’t sit by and allow the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party to suppress the needs of APC supporters, the country’s main opposition party. The youth protest left four people dead and 10 wounded.

In a bid to tackle the situation, the government proposed a cybersecurity bill that would deter people from listening and sharing virulent messages like Adebayor’s, 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.”

Cyber Crime Act 2020 — covering common issues on cybersecurity 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.

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

And Director-General of National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), Daniel Kaitibie, also welcomed the cybersecurity law as the nation works to reform digital rights.

‘Far-reaching ramifications on citizen’s rights’

Of course, the main objective is to fight cybercrimes of all kinds.

But the bill has its shortcomings.

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 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 Gibril Sesay, in a 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.

But 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.

And 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.

Further legal pretext to clamp down on dissent

Journalist Mahmud Tim Kargbo is among several Sierra Leoneans who have already been targeted for writing critical social and political commentary on social media.

Mahmud Tim Kargbo was arrested and charged with criminal defamation last year for sharing content on social media about Sierra Leone’s assistant inspector-general of police, Patrick A.T. Johnson, that was regarded as “insulting” and “scurrilous.” He had allegedly violated Section 3 of the Public Order Act, which criminalized obscenity, threats and other actions resulting in “insult” or “annoyance.”

Most Sierra Leonean journalists, civil society organizations and opposition politicians admonished Kargbo’s arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists has unequivocally condemned these developments, which they described as tactics used by the incumbent government to clamp down on voices critical of their governance.

Mahmud Tim Kargbo was released on bail on December 4, after spending a few hours in the Pademba Road maximum prison. If he had been convicted, he could spend up to three months in prison or pay a fine of 20 million leones ($1,960 United States dollars).

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.”

Under the new cybercrime bill, police have already formed a cybersecurity unit specifically for criminal investigations in the cybersphere.

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.

Editor’s Note: You can Read the Proposed Cyber Crimes Bill Here:

Sierra Leone Cyber Crime Bill 2020

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6 Comments

  1. A ruler with authoritarian tendencies is not hard to single out in the midst of a crowd of millions of people. Yep,they are very easy to recognize even when they put on various shades of lipstick and makeup just to prevent us from recognizing their true nature.The man in State House has always been an anarchist at heart and therefore hates to be challenged by the media,citizens and anyone not sharing his outdated ideas and beliefs. They have now realized that they have failed miserably and he knows that defeat awaits him in the year 2023. The time to put adequate measures in place for the purposes of stifling Freedom of Speech is now.

    And please do not underestimate the criminal tendencies of an old soldier that has been likened to an old mean wolf trying to grow new fangs in the middle of a fight he intends not to lose.(lol) Be vigilant folks,if there is ever a slow crawling snail that can transform itself into a dragon with wings in a volatile,fragile territory like our own – it is the power hungry SLPP man in State House.(lol)
    .

  2. “What the heart sees the eyes can not see”. I have not read the draft bill yet, but if I could go by what Young4na wrote on part 3 – powers and procedures, I may wish to see mobile operators of mobile companies also brought to book.

    I am in support of it. Mobile messaging through text messages to people informing them that they have won millions of leones just to steal from them is a serious problem now in Sierra Leone that is destroying so many businesses and making lives miserable for the victims. This is a growing problem and has to be stopped. This act is done by mobile operators of the respective mobile companies. I can vividly say it and have the expertise to prove that beyond reasonable doubt.

    I happen to be a victim too. I appreciate the area mentioned that talks about to seize a specified computer system. With regard this particular issue I have mentioned, if I had the chance to send a position paper to parliament for consideration, before this act is passed into law I will do it. This is an organized crime and gradually becoming a state security matter.

    It is essential for us Sierra Leoneans to see this act passed into Law. Not only looking at it from one perspective, but also from another perspective. Ooh Sierra Leone!

  3. On the 24th of July 2020, the 1965 criminal libel Act was scrapped after it was signed into law by President Bio. The repeal of the criminal libel and sedition laws finally comes to an end after fifty five years. Journalists and print media and the diplomatic of corps, that believes in the freedom of expression hail it as a new mile stone in the freedom expression Sierra leone. The international community praised Bio for honouring a manifesto commitment to scrap the law. Back in 2018, this is what then SLPP presidential candidate flag bearer Bio, has to say about this 1965 sedition libel law ” Part Five of Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act criminalise any publications that is deemed defamatory or seditious and has been used as a regime to unduly target and imprison media practitioners and silence dissident” Directly from the horses mouth.

    This remarks were actually made by then candidate Bio in a media cocktail meeting with journalists on December 5th 2018.Is less than year since we scrapped the 1965 libel and seditious Act. Why introduce an other Bill through the back door to curtail freedom of speech. This Cyber crime bill will be a hard sell, since Bio have already spill the beans in 2018, as for its true purpose . So now we can know, in all probability Bio, was play acting as the champion of free speech, just so he get international recognition he was craving for, because of the bad press he had at the start of that 2020 . Pademba Road, Tombo, Makeni, Lunsar, Dr. Blyden and Paolo Conteh. He needed to clean up his act, in other to receive international financial assistance. For a man with a thin skin, it was too good to be true. That is why we call on all freedom of speech loving people to resist this new draconian cyber laws that stifle free speech.

    As a government, you can always ask Facebook, Twitter, to take down posting that instigated violence and tribal, regional differences in Sierra leone . I’m all for it. What you can’t do, is to use the same brush to paint everyone the same. Is wrong and should be resisted . They’ve done it with Trump and extremist groups. And the best way to monitor those individuals promoting violence and tribal divisions is to ask Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit more Krio speaking people in their monitoring and instigating of offensive languages in their platforms. Violence and suppression of freedom of speech is not the answer.

    • When this cyber crime bill goes through the various stages of parliament and is signed into law, how is it going to work? One starts to wonder if it was really a well thought out plan to stifle freedom of speech. The language appears to suggest, the government will hold both national, and international print media organisations to account by issuing fines or prison terms. And the Sierra Leone police are entrusted to police this lwas and where necessary enforce them. What a load of hogwash. Which suggests to me, soon once the law comes to effect, social media organisations like Facebook and Twitter and other platforms will soon start getting fines issued against them without even been aware that those individuals actively promote discord and tribalism in Sierra Leone are doing so, with the knowledge they can get away with it, under the cover of our wide spread spoken Krio language.

      Surely, if the government can flag up some of the offensive language that they deemed will instigate violence or social discord, is high time they get in touch with this social media gaints. As oppressive governments around the world have come to realise, this organisations are bigger than governments.If they can issue a ban on the president of United States, for the same reasons the government wants to crackdown on Freedom of Speech in Sierra Leone, surely anyone caught promoting acts of violence or using offensive language, as sometimes allegations of both APC and SLPP supporters are asscued off, then I will say becareful of what you wish for. Because we have our social media Queen in the form of the first lady Mrs Fatima Bio. The genie of freedom of speech is out of the bottle and there is no way of putting it back. Even Communists China and other oppressive regimes like Uganda under Museveni, find it difficult to control the narrative.

      Unless the Bio government wants to build a fire wall that will blockout all offensive contents in our social media platforms that is aired in Sierra Leone. If the US government can’t control or check their behaviour, what hope has Bio and his government think they can control the contents we read or hear on this gaint media platform. Better still are we going to see Mark Zuckerberg summon for a public hearing in the wells of the Sierra Leone Parliament? The best this government can do is to identify offenders promoting hate and violence, which is against the rules of all news organisations and report them or ask social media gaints to take down the contents . Better still get more ofour krio speaking Sierra Leoneans brothers and sisters in Silicon Valley to discern some of the offensive language.

  4. SNIPPET OF CYBER BILL 2020, FRIGHTENING FOLKS

    PART III – POWERS AND PROCEDURES
    4. (1) Powers and procedures under this Act shall be applicable to and may be exercised with respect to –
    (a) criminal offences under this Act;
    (b) criminal offences committed by means of a computer system, including mobile phones and other electronic equipment, under any other law; and
    (c) the collection of evidence in electronic form of a criminal offence under this Act or any other law…….

    (b) has been acquired by a person as a result of
    the commission of an offence,
    the Judge may issue a warrant which shall authorise the police officer or other authorised person, with such assistance as may be necessary, to access, seize or secure a specified computer system, program, data or computer data storage medium.

    GOVERNMENT RECORDING/TAPPING INTO CITIZENS PRIVATE DEVICES

    (1) Where there are reasonable grounds to believe that traffic data associated with specified communications is reasonably required for the purposes of a specific criminal investigation, a Judge of the High Court may, on an application by a police officer or other authorised person, order a service provider to-
    collect or record traffic data in real-time; and
    provide specified traffic data to the police officer or other authorised person.

    SOCIAL MEDIA CRACKDOWN and STIFLING of FREEDOM of EXPRESSION

    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.”

  5. Yes indeed, the proposed cybercrime bill, while it is needed to handle the many challenges that comes with the digital age, the current regime is clandestinely using such a nonpartisan cause to stifle citizens’ freedom of expression on social media. No matter what political inclinations you happen to have, the bill will affect you one way or another. While the current regime might use it to terrorize opposition members, you might as well be on the receiving end when a future government takes over. So it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure any draconian measures are nipped before the bill becomes law.

    As it stands, there are no data privacy laws/Acts that spell out the rights to corporations, entities, and individuals’ privacy to their personal data on their devices. The bill calls for the confiscation of these priceless possessions in the digital age, whenever a law enforcement officer deems it necessary for an investigation. Thanks honorable ART for bringing this issue on this reputable platform. As an IT professional, this bill means a lot to me.

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