When one thinks of natural rights, for many, the freedom of expression stands at the top of the list. In fact, a society cannot be free if the freedom of speech isn’t protected. According to our constitution, Chapter 1 section 1b, Grenadians have the right to “freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association.”
However, this freedom of speech which is guaranteed and protected under the constitution seems to again be under attack. As per the new political administration, Grenadians can be charged EC $100,000 or face three years in prison for what the administration termed “offensive” speech, posted or transferred online, as part of an Electronic Crime Bill.
Of course, with the advent of the internet our social interactions are now transferred from the real world to an online world. Thus, law makers have to rethink law making. In that, the internet has to now be taken into consideration. But how can this be done while ensuring user protection? How can our free speech not be infringed? This new Grenadian law that seeks to make it a criminal offense to insult someone online provides no guaranties.
According to the Now Grenada online news network, the legislation says that you can be charged for electronically transferred “information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character.”
The troubling thing with this legislation is its vagueness and broadness. Who determines what “offensive” means? It is left undefined, leaving it open to interpretation. “According to the new law, complaints about offensive comments would be filed with the police, and a judge would then decide if the message was offensive” (Grenada Connection). This means that any “Electronic Mail or an electronic message,” can indeed be viewed as being “offensive” and is being transferred “for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience.” There are no guard lines. It is all up to the person making the charge and the “judge” hearing the case.
Grenada has had a history with political leaders’ infringement on the freedom of expression before. I am speaking of the Eric Mathew Gary regime (1967 – 1979) and the Maurice Bishop and his revolution regime (1979 – 1983). With this backdrop, many Grenadians fear that this move seems to be going down the same road. In that, Prime Minister Keith Mitchell passed this law as a way to curtail his opposition; to restrain the media, journalists and others from speaking out against him and his regime. In fact, Keith Mitchell is no stranger to such tactics. He, in his previous tenure as Prime Minister of Grenada for thirteen years (1995 – 2008) sought to suppress the media. He, on many occasions, brought criminal charges against media people and journalists with “intentional criminal libel” for reporting stories that exposed his wrongdoings. He even threatened Tillman Thomas, the then opposition leader, with prosecution for criminal libel – (Grenada Connection).
“In June 2004, the US-Based Committee to protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a strongly-worded letter to then Prime Minister Mitchell, calling on him to “desist from any efforts to curtail the work of the press.” (Grenada Connection)
Indeed, Grenada has a criminal code “which established the offense of intentional criminal libel,” as per Criminal code Section 252. There is, however, a growing call for the elimination of this law. Tillman Thomas, as Prime Minister (2008 – 2013), had made the “move to eliminate criminal penalties for defamation under Section 252 of the Criminal Code, and was praised by the International Press Institute (IPI) for his courage.
We, however, in light of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell’s apparent move to curtail the freedom of expression, have to take action. We must not sit back and crack jocks about this. It’s not funny! As concerned citizens who want the best for the country, we must stand up for free speech. We must protect our constitutional rights, and push back on this encroachment. We must stand and protest not just this Electronic Law, but also the “Criminal Libel” code. These codes most often than not provide legal cover for political regimes to muzzle any opposition, and Journalists from reporting their wrongdoings.