When it was just a bill, Sierra Leone’s Cyber Security and Crime Act raised several concerns among civil society and human rights activists who feared that the law could be used to interfere with people’s right to freedom of expression.

Now, almost a year later, multiple people, including a journalist, a musician, a politician, and a mentally disabled man, have all been arrested and prosecuted under the cybercrime law for expressing their views online – validating those initial concerns.

Sierra Leoneans who use social media and mobile phones to communicate may risk being criminally prosecuted for cyberstalking and/or cyberbullying, based on Section 44 of the Cyber Security and Crime Act, if they share information or opinions perceived to be abusive, harassing, insulting, or detrimentally affecting to other people. But ask everyday people what cyber stalking is, and most won’t know how to explain it.

In November 2021, Sierra Leone’s President, Dr. Julius Maada Bio, signed into law the Cyber Security and Crime Act, which is supposed to help in preventing serious cybercrimes, such as online financial fraud, money laundering, impersonation, and so on. Instead, experts say that the law so far has been used to threaten, intimidate, arrest, and prosecute people who express critical views of the government.

The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG), the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC), and the Independent Media Commission (IMC) have all raised concerns that the Cyber Crime law may infringe on the fundamental right to free speech. While SLAJ emphasized that there is a strong need for cybersecurity legislation to fight serious cybercrimes, the law should not be used as an excuse to clamp down on dissenting voices online.

“Learning from the experience of the Criminal Libel Law, which criminalized free speech, we said [that the] government should focus on other crimes committed in cyberspace like internet fraud, kidnapping, money laundering, etc. But if you focus on issues around free speech or freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and internet freedom then you are limiting the space and infringing on people’s rights,” said Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, SLAJ President.

Ambiguous Legislation

More concerning is the fact that the Cyber Crime law is very technical, and everyday citizens, many of them illiterate, do not understand which online behaviours are criminalized.

“The offences [ in section 44], all of them are subjective; the definitions are not clear, and they are open to misinterpretation and manipulation by the courts. If [the] government wants to come after you, then they can easily use the police and the judiciary to get at you; because they will interpret it in the way they want to interpret [it],” said Nasralla.

However, the Minister of Information and Communication, Mohamed Rahman Swaray disagrees. “The definitions [of criminal offences] are all there, so it is not left to chance or to anybody’s interpretation. Cyberbullying and cyberstalking are defined clearly, and, in some places, people commit suicide as a result of [cyberbullying]. It is not funny, this is not a localized crime, it is a serious offence,” Swaray said.

The Cyber Security and Crime Act, 2021 describes cyberstalking as “when a person intentionally initiates communications or a course of conduct directed at a specific person or persons with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause emotional distress.” And under Section 44, it states: “A person, […] who individually or with another person, willfully and repeatedly communicates, either directly or indirectly, with another person, if he knows or ought to have known that his conduct – (b) detrimentally affects that person,” commits an offence and shall be convicted to a fine of at least 30 million old Leones and/or at least two years in prison.

Asked whether the law should be amended, Minister Swaray said that “[o]f course, all laws can be reviewed [in] time because laws are enacted to address challenges current and emerging. So, if the landscape changes we might not even need a law if everyone behaves well the next day.” The minister agreed that the Cyber Crime law is a highly technical document and neither the Sierra Leone Law School nor Fourah Bay College is currently running courses dedicated to teaching cybersecurity.

SLAJ: Journalists Pressured to Stop Criticizing the Government

SLAJ’s main concern is that people who have been vocal on social media have been arrested under the Cyber Crime Act, which may serve to intimidate, discourage or silence government critics. The arrests, in conjunction with the government’s August 11 statement that it will robustly monitor social media networks for unlawful speech, may lead to self-censorship even among the most genuine and credible government critics, Nasralla fears.

“We are going back to square one. The same effect we had with the Criminal Libel Law, is what we will have with this law, especially Section 44. It will cower media professionals from doing their work […], everyone will begin to self-censor and there are things people would not be able to report as long as there is that fear that if I write this, this is what would happen. So everybody would go silent and the government would have a field day since nobody will be able to hold them to account, nobody will do investigative stories and that would have a negative impact on media freedom and [would be] detrimental to our democracy,” Nasralla added.

Several journalists have contacted SLAJ to seek support and advice because their family members are pressuring them, out of genuine fear, to stop criticizing the government, and pursue certain news topics. Others have reported receiving threats from individuals claiming to be government officials, according to SLAJ.

Government’s Argument

Criminalizing cyber harassment may be unusual in many democratic societies, but in Sierra Leone, some officials say that this behaviour has a negative impact on women and girls, and needs to be addressed.

“You are free to make any statement [online] but that which causes harm, particularly to a woman then no, you must not be allowed to make such statements,” says Manty Tarawalli, Minister of Gender, and Children’s Affairs, who emphasizes that the law must be implemented in line with international best practices and the absolute respect for everyone’s fundamental human rights.

Alternatives to Tackle Cyberbullying or Cyberstalking

Make no mistake, Nasralla said, cyberbullying and cyberstalking are serious offences. But the government has not tried any other less aggressive methods to tackle online harassment. For example, there is no official data to understand cyberbullying in Sierra Leone. According to Datareportal, there were 2.67 million Internet users in Sierra Leone as of January 2022. The number of digital users is growing but it is still very low compared to other countries in Africa, according to the World Bank 2020 data.

“What I […] thought the government should have done is to start with extensive public education about the use of social media so people see it as a positive tool rather than a tool that they will use to spread hate or negative things, but the government has not invested much in that area,” Nasralla said. Criminalizing something before addressing the issue through awareness and education is not the right approach in a democracy. More awareness about the issues and more education on media literacy is key, Nasralla believes.

“Government needs to open up the space and not go after people who use social media to criticize them […] or even accuse them wrongly, it is better to talk than resort to violence,” Nasralla says, suggesting that repressing speech does not promote peace.

Cyber Security and the Right to Access Information

Dr. Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Chairman of the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC), is of the opinion that cyberspace must be regulated to ensure that inciteful language, such as hate speech, is controlled, but emphasized the need to access information of public interest as a means to promote checks and balances between the people and the government. He spends most of his time encouraging and advising government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) to publish information of public interest as a means to counter disinformation and promote government accountability.

“If you don’t [give information out] people may think you’re hiding something, even if you’re not hiding anything. When MDAs refuse to give information, it fuels mistrust. It erodes public trust in service delivery, too much secrecy is not good. It is in the interest of the public and it is in the interest of the public authorities also to make sure that they make information that is supposed to be available in the public domain to be made available,” Dr. Seaga Shaw said.

Asked whether MDAs are compliant with the proactive disclosure of information (PDI), meaning sharing information of public interest regularly, Dr. Shaw says that there has been some progress over the previous years but certain ministries continue to refuse compliance.

“In 2020 we had about 20 public authorities that submitted [PDIs]. This time [2021] we have about 51 but not all of them were given a pass mark. After evaluation about 60% to 70% got a pass mark,” Dr. Shaw informed.

Meanwhile, Nasralla said that SLAJ and its partners will continue to speak about the Cyber Security and Crime law and raise awareness with the public, as well as decision-makers to amend it.

“We will continue to advocate and raise those issues, so the public understands that there is this law and at the same time trying to let parliament see the reason to review some of the sections before we take another 50 years like the criminal libel law,” Nasralla concludes.

Source: The Untold Stories