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Data Protection Bill attacked as “a censorship law in disguise”

Attorney Derick Sylvester – the current head of the local Bar Association

A senior Caribbean lawyer has warned that the current Data Protection Bill introduced in the Grenada Parliament by the nine month old Congress government of Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell could be “a censorship law in disguise” if allowed to become law.

The lawyer who spoke to THE NEW TODAY on condition that he was not named, said that Data Protection law “is not uncommon” and do exist in several Commonwealth countries with the intention “to strengthen privacy rights and the privacy of the individual.”

He said that many countries pass these laws to “address confidential commercial information of corporations” with a view to protecting these entities from “unfair competition and insider trading” by people who are bent on sabotaging them.

“Nowhere is it ever directed for governmental control of the flow of information to the public. Never is it arranged for the control by the government of the flow of information to the public,” he warned.

“In other words once you start hearing those kinds of restrictions that is the opposite to a Freedom of Information arrangement. This appears to be a censorship law in disguise – it appears to be that,” he quipped.

According to the lawyer, media practitioners should be wary of the law as it could affect them in plying their trade.

He said: “If a journalist gets a piece of information about a funny kind of contract that exist because they (corporations) signed it with the government – so there has to be a record of it in order for the government to pay this person according to the contract, but it is intended to be kept secret, you (journalist) gets it and you burst it in your paper and you burst it with a picture of it in the paper, once this law is in force you are implicated with an offense.”

“Information is not only in proprietary – information is not property only. Information is a public order – Information is not just personal or private. Information is a public good in this modern context – it’s a public good and once you start restricting public good you are getting into the area of censorship – you can’t do that,” he added.

The senior attorney called for the Grenada Chamber of Industry & Commerce (GCIC), Grenada Bar Association (GBA), Media Workers Association of Grenada (MWAG) and other interest groups like the trade unions and churches and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to be given an opportunity to look at the bill.

Local Bar Association President Derick Sylvester confirmed to THE NEW TODAY that his body held an extra-ordinary General Meeting Tuesday involving about 45 attorneys using the zoom platform to discuss the controversial bill.

According to Sylvester, the lawyers were able to express their views on the issue at the meeting and some of them gave an undertaking to send their concerns via email to the bar.

He said the GBA is preparing a document to send to Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Senator Claudette Joseph outlining their concerns about certain aspects of the bill, especially the Section that speaks to the warrant of arrest.

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“We think that is over broad and it leaves room for violations of constitutional rights. It is too broad – it should be more restrictive because depriving someone of their property or anyone of their liberty is extreme because your personal property includes your personal medical records – those things are really confidential,” he said.

“…We believe that if you have to get a warrant to get those things, it should be specifically circumscribed and it should be (done by) persons specifically authorised to do so upon receiving cogent evidence and evidence that should not be easily challenged.”

Sylvester pointed out that this issue is very important in light of the fact that these applications are normally made ex-parte and not subjected to involvement by both parties.

“Remember that when you go to a Magistrate to get a warrant it is only one side that is heard so you have to be extremely careful about as to abuse,” he said. According to the GBA President, his members are also concerned about the definition in the bill about “authorised persons” to do certain things under the act.

“We believe that … it just leaves it open to who an authorised person (should) be – you can delegate anyone to be an authorised person – it could be a police officer, a civilian, any person that you choose,” he cautioned.

Sylvester expressed concerns over the fact that the act speaks to regulations and that there are no regulations in the document that go together with the act.

The senior lawyer also called on the legislators to provide a much clearer definition for data protection in the bill.

“We believe that it should be more expansive,” he quipped.

The GBA boss also suggested to the government that the Attorney General’s office should circulate draft bills to the Bar Association for comment as was done in the past.

“We are really here to help. We are not here to thwart anything but we are here to help and give our valid feedback. They don’t have to accept what we say but just get our feedback because they may very well find that what we are saying is valid,” he said.

According to Sylvester the controversial bill was never sent to the bar and that he first got a glimpse of it from a local reporter which prompted him to reach out to Attorney General Sen. Joseph.

THE NEW TODAY understands that the dossier being prepared by GBA to send to the government will also include the comments made on the bill by the island’s foremost constitutional expert Dr. Francis Alexis in a weekend media programme.

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