While the bill predominantly creates sanctions targeting individuals who commit crimes online, including child pornography, child sex trafficking and child abuse, three provisions could be used to criminalize the actions of journalists and others in the general population who publish and disseminate digital information, as similar laws have been used to control the press in other countries around the world. RSF has called on Governor Jaspert to send the bill back to Parliament for the revision of Section 14A so it is in line with international free speech standards, and to repeal 14B and 14P from the legislation altogether.
The offenses outlined under Section 14A of the bill, which criminalizes “sending offensive messages through a computer,” are vaguely defined and sets up a wide dragnet that RSF fears could be used to catch any person posting on social media or sending an electronic message. Specifically, RSF is concerned this clause could be used to prosecute journalists in the course of their work, which could include contacting sources for comment or publishing information of public interest. Additionally, Section 14B of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act would criminalize “electronic defamation” at a moment in history when many countries around the region have been moving in the opposite direction. The penalties for this offense are draconian and can foster self-censorship among journalists. Meanwhile, Section 14P, which allows for warrantless arrests for these offenses, could open up opportunities for police to indiscriminately arrest journalists as a consequence of their reporting.
“If this legislation is not rewritten, RSF is concerned the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act could be interpreted by courts in ways that could lead to self-censorship and the baseless prosecution of journalists and bloggers for conducting their professional duties or expressing their views,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of RSF’s North America Bureau. “Legislators in the British Virgin Islands should revise this legislation as a matter of priority given a region-wide decline in press freedom in recent years.”
While the bill was recently passed by the British Virgin Islands’ Parliament, it currently awaits the Governor’s signature before it is made into law.
The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, of which the British Virgin Islands is a member, plummeted 15 places to 50th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The OECS region is now considered a problematic place for journalists to work, due in part to state control over the revenues of media companies and police intimidation that causes journalists to self-censor.