KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Legislators in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are scheduled to consider a cybercrime bill Thursday that would allow prison sentences of up to two years for online defamation.
Local rights organizations and international press groups are expressing concern the measure could stifle free speech and journalism in the Caribbean nation of just over 100,000 inhabitants.
"Criminal libel laws violate international standards for free expression and could have a chilling effect on the free flow of information," said Carlos Lauria, a senior program coordinator with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
St. Vincent already has similar penalties for print and broadcast media, but those laws are rarely enforced, officials say.
Anesia Baptiste, an opposition politician who was on a committee that reviewed the cybercrime bill, said St. Vincent's longstanding criminal defamation laws have "fallen into disuse." She's worried the cybercrime bill could revive prosecutions.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, whose faction has a majority in Parliament, dismissed criticism of the bill as "absolute rubbish" during a radio interview this week.
Critics have criticized his government for holding consultations over two days amid the islands' popular Carnival celebrations but Gonsalves insists the process paving the way for the bill has been years in the making.
"We've involved people in the bill on the select committee to sit permanently to help us to make the bill better," Gonsalves said.
Criminal defamation is on the books of many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. While these laws are not commonly used to imprison journalists, the fact that St. Vincent is considering new legislation is a concern, Lauria said.
"This is very worrying because we have seen an increasing amount of countries enacting cybercrime laws that could harm and curtail free expression," he said.