ORG: Bahamians are right to worry about “fake news” emergency powers

ORG: Bahamians are right to worry about “fake news” emergency powers

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – While the government’s COVID-19 regulations may not be unprecedented globally, the Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) insists that the measure must be monitored closely to guard against abuse.

The Governor General signed a proclamation order declaring a public state of emergency on Tuesday.

The proclamation triggers emergency powers regulations tabled in the House of Assembly yesterday, including provisions that criminalize the spread of false information.

The emergency proclamation will last for 14 days, but can be extended for up to six months with parliamentary decision.

Chauntez Dillet-Wilson

In an interview with Eyewitness News, ORG’s communications coordinator, Chauntez Dillet-Wilson said: “We do not feel like these measures are unprecedented or out of left field, but we certainly will be keeping an eye on it and we do hope that this is something that they will stick to their word and it will only be for the duration of the emergency response.”

“We hope that it will not be abused in any which way and of course civil society will be keeping an eye to ensure that that never happens.”

The Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations, 2020, prohibits the publication, posting or re-posting on any media platform, including social media, of any purported news, report or statement that is known to be untrue, suspected to be untrue or “incites public fear, panic or ethnic hatred”.

Under the regulations, a person would be liable, upon conviction, to a $10,000 fine and/or a term of imprisonment of 18 months in prison.

The draft bills were circulated on social media just hours before they were tabled in Parliament. The fake news regulation has received backlash in some circles and praise in others.

“We can absolutely understand why they would want to get a handle on any kind of fake news, in the time of a crisis, misinformation can be a dangerous precedence,” Dillet-Wilson continued.

“However, we also understand why people feel threatened by this, feel uncomfortable with it because it doesn’t encroach upon Freedom of Speech as we are used to being made to practice it.”

She noted that because a state of emergency temporarily suspends some of the rights and freedoms citizens may be used to, the question over the emergency measure should be whether it is in proportion.

Pointing to other countries that have looked at similar legislation and have also had major backlash, she added that The Bahamas must be thinking much farther than the legislation, and look to address why misinformation is so widely circulated.

“Creating an environment of transparency, of truth, of correct information, starts with things like Freedom of Information, things like being proactive about giving information, things like constantly putting out a heavy stream of good informative resources for people,” she continued.

“I do like that the government is trying to act quickly and proactively…These are the foundations of a transparent and informed public, so you have to look at it from all sides, and you cannot put it in a space where it is only about punitive measures.

“We [also] have to take in the in full context where this is coming on the heels of two MPs previously agitating for these kinds of measures – prior to any kind of conversation with regard to the emergency regulations.”

Dillet-Wilson said in order to create this environment of transparency, the move must be measured with more education, the introduction of Freedom of Information and other bills that support free speech.

As for the overall regulations, she also noted it consolidates a lot of power with the prime minister.

“In other countries, there are three different type of state of emergency legislation and the type of legislation that is usually enacted in response to a widespread health emergency is not the highest level of emergency and it doesn’t necessarily always contain this type of sweeping powers consolidated in one place,” she said.

“So when you have this consolidated power in one place, combined with these slippery slope encroaches upon our Freedom of Speech, we are right to worry and I do hope the Bahamian will keep an eye on it.

“We will definitely keep an eye on it.”