Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019
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Navigating the Internet censorship minefield

Minister of State for National Security Keith Bell has announced that the government intends to make citizens criminally liable for posting lewd and obscene photos on social media.

He said draft legislation to this end could be completed before the end of the year following wide consultation.

Bell added that the issue of citizens posting crime scene photos on social media has become a concern.

This comes just over a year after community activist Rodney Moncur was arrested and charged for posting on his Facebook page autopsy photos of a man who died in police custody.

Moncur, who argued that he was exposing police brutality and therefore acting in the interests of justice, was recently cleared when a magistrate ruled that he had no case to answer.

If polled, most Bahamians would probably indicate that they support some level of Internet censorship. Nearly every country in the world polices online content to a certain extent, particularly when it comes to child pornography and hate speech. However, in most democracies, the controls are limited to preventing the Internet from being used to encourage or facilitate violence or abuse.

Only a handful of nations use Internet censorship to try and enforce social or cultural mores and standards. Most of these are repressive regimes with poor human rights records.

In these countries, the justification for censorship is that it is needed to protect traditional values. But Internet freedom advocates say this is simply a smokescreen concealing an effort to retain control of public opinion, and thereby, political power.

The Bahamas, a country that survives based on its international reputation, must do all it can to avoid being labeled as one of the enemies of Internet freedom. Certainly, we should not do anything to invite such an impression.

In this regard, it was unfortunate for police that the Moncur matter happened to involve an allegation of police brutality, as this opened the door for his arrest to be interpreted as self-serving.

At the same time, the case can be instructive as the government considers the parameters of the proposed legislation.

In the United States, which has very few laws governing Internet content, convictions have still been handed down after images were posted on social media in violation of medical confidentiality laws, or in an attempt to intimidate victims or their families.

Harassment and breach of trust – these are the kinds of concrete legal issues that should inform the framework of any law governing Internet content in The Bahamas. Crucially, they concern the way in which a particular image is used, rather than encouraging a blanket ban, in effect protecting whistleblowers and those acting in the public interest from persecution.

By contrast, lewdness and obscenity are vague, equivocal concepts that are open to a wide range of interpretations, which in turn invite distrust and suspicion of ulterior motives. The government should drop these terms from the discussion and look to international best practices when navigating the ever-expanding minefield that is Internet censorship.

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