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Death knell for journalism

Published: 
Sunday, April 8, 2018

Winnie Mandela’s death on Easter Sunday—unreasonably but powerfully felt like a personal betrayal perhaps because the news came while I was looking at the Cybercrime Bill 2017. Her death felt like a death knell for journalism itself.

In smoke-filled rooms and pubs, in newsrooms and typewriters in London, my International Journalism colleagues and I cut our teeth on the butt end of the anti-apartheid movement, cold war, genocide in Rwanda, the struggle in Northern Ireland, the intifada, the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Rodney King verdict and LA riots, a live Gulf war and the internet deluge.

Winnie and Nelson Mandela, above all, were synonymous with many journalistic beginnings. They were emblematic of what would be our ideals—power of a complex, matriarch like Winnie as reviled as she was revered; causes bigger than the journalist; struggles for humanity, watchdogs for the oppressed and vulnerable; holding governments to account, a voice for the voiceless.

In T&T despite low pay, high price to health and personal lives, long hours, deadlines, high stress, veiled threats, journalists continue to provide a mirror to this nation in the public interest, as watchdogs and fall guys. Journalists across media have broken story after story, of misuse of billions of dollars of public funds, and outright corruption, way back from Johnny O’Halloran to the Airport scandal, from Udecott, to SportTT, and everything in between.

We are jaded from being accused of partisan reporting by successive governments. We take our role as the fifth estate and a pillar of democracy seriously, a the country saw during the 1990 coup attempt when a radio station kept us going. Our voice is needed with greater urgency than ever before as we slide into anarchy as among the most murderous countries worldwide without oil to cover the rot.

In the clamour of voices on the Internet we need a Cybercrime Bill. The Internet has made journalists’ out of everyone, randomly, often irresponsibly. For example, teenage boys have committed suicide after being outed as being gay, libel and slander laws broken with impunity.

Enter the Cybercrime Bill 2017. The ostensible intent of the bill is laudable—to protect us all from Internet, and/or computers, and cell phones including child pornography, revenge porn, hate speech, incitement to violence, blackmailing, protection of national secrets, company classified information, cyber bullying, computer related forgery, identity theft, sending viruses, and spam.

Terrifyingly, the bill criminalizes not just whistle-blowers and journalists but you, me, everyone.

It is draconian, vague, and wide in scope, similar to legislation passed in repressive regimes. Think Turkey, China, Thailand, Egypt, Russia.

Example 1. The teenager on Facebook

Take your average teenager who ‘frapes’ his friend by pretending to be him as a joke and posts an journalismembarrassing photograph.

That breaks the law five times over.
a) Illegal access to a computer system b) Illegal data interference. Sending unauthorized data.
c) Identity theft related offence. d) Violation of privacy. e) ‘serious emotional distress’ in clause 18 is so vague that almost anyone can come under its net, so a religious person can feel ‘emotional distress’ over semi-nudity and your teen can be charged and be subject to ten years in jail and a million dollars in fines.

Example 2. The politician.

If a politician claims ‘serious emotional distress’ over a meme that you receive and share ridiculing him, you could be liable and charged $300,000 or face three years imprisonment.

Example 3. The journalist. (Related to the politician).

Clause 8 could be death of investigative journalism. Now that everything is stored on computers, say goodbye to all transparency in governance. Once that data is deemed private by government or public servants, or statutory authority, a journalist, simply by receiving a leaked document by a ‘whistle blower’ is as guilty as the person sending it. Both are subject to a two-year jail sentence and a 100,000-dollar fine.

The burden of proof throughout lies on the accused. That has an unconstitutional feel about it. The fines are fixed.

In this form it makes criminals of all of us, muzzling perhaps the only institution of our democracy that actually works.

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