October 1, 2022

By Ragan M. Conteh

The composition of the National Cyber Security Advisory Council invites undue political interference into the administration of the Act. As enshrined, under section 48 of the proposed bill, the composition clearly lays a solid foundation for undue political influence, manipulation and control in the provision of strategic leadership, oversight and guidance on implementation and development of national cyber security legal frameworks in Sierra Leone.

Listed below are the members of the National Cyber Security Advisory Council, including President Julius Maada Bio, the Minister of Finance, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the National Security Coordinator of ONS, the Director-General of Central Intelligence and Security Unit, the Chief of Defense Staff of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, the Inspector-General of Police, the Director General of the National Telecommunications Commission, the Bank Governor, the National Cyber Security Coordinator, the Director of Communications in the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Minister of Information and Communications, who incidentally acts as Secretary.

It is interesting to note that all of the above Cyber Security Advisory Council members are key political appointees who are largely answerable to and under the influence and control of the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone.

With such a makeup, it is obvious that politics would loom large in the oversight, implementation and development of national cyber security legal frameworks in Sierra Leone.

The question remains, why should the composition of the Cyber Security Council not include non-political actors, such as members from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, civil society organizations, the Sierra Leone Bar Association and Independent Media Commission, etc?

The reason may be simple. The proposed Cybercrime law is another Trojan horse and political tool designed to suppress political dissent as well as opposing voices, both at home and abroad, that are critical of the ruling government.

The composition shows that the Cybercrime Bill is an apt replacement of the repealed Criminal Libel Law in fundamental terms.

The grounds upon which a member of the National Cyber Security Advisory Council can be dismissed from office are fluid, weak and nebulous

The proposed Cybercrime Bill, under section 47 (2) (b), gives the President arbitrary and unilateral powers to nullify the membership of any member of the National Cyber Security Advisory Council if he was satisfied that it is not in the public interest for the person to continue serving as a member of the Council.

This ground of removal makes for compromise and outright loyalty of Council members to the wishes and desires of the President. It also opens room for political manouevering and unnecessary dismissals.

The removal process or loss of a member’s status must not be made weak and nebulous. It must be watertight and bullet proof. This is because of the extreme importance of the bill. Besides, how does the president determine what is not in the public interest?

The quorum that is needed, to convene a meeting of the National Cyber Security Advisory Council as well as taking decisions, is also not known.

The proposed Cybercrime Bill does not state a specific number of members that can constitute a quorum for the Advisory Council to hold its meeting or take important decisions.

It is anyone’s guess regarding the number of members that may be required to constitute a quorum or to take valid decisions. Why did the drafters omit the number of members that can constitute a quorum for meetings to be held or decisions to be taken? Such silence leaves room for suspicion.

Politics looms large in the nomination of the National Cyber Security Coordinator. The proposed Cybercrime Bill, under section 47 (1), gives the minister power to nominate the National Cyber Security Coordinator.

However, no clear guidelines to how this nomination will be done in a fair and non-partisan manner are stated. In many cases, when such a power is given to a politically exposed person, like the minister, without clear guidelines, politics will be the first motivation rather than merit.

The Cybercrime Bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; set up to target WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users who express dissenting opinions and criticisms over government policies and programmes.

The proposed Cybercrime Bill undermines many international human rights laws, treaties and conventions that Sierra Leone has signed and ratified.

No doubt, a cursory look at the provisions of the cybercrime law reveals how it clearly tramples on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens, both within and outside of Sierra Leone.

The proposed Cybercrime Bill awakens memories of the expunged criminal libel law. The draconian provisions, within the Cybercrime Bill, aim at suppressing dissenting voices, opposition parties, journalists, civil society activists, the mainstream and social media and critics of the political class, bring memories of the expunged Public Order Act into the limelight.

Apart from a few plausible provisions, like those dealing with child bullying and child pornography, etc., majority of the provisions seek to suppress individuals, organizations and entities that make use of electronic devices, social media or cyberspace to voice their frustrations, dissenting views and opinions against the ruling government.

A true and well-meaning cybercrime legislation should have safeguards that protect citizens’ human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The legitimate expectation of any Cybercrime Bill is principally to address fraud, money laundering, theft, organized crime, forgery and terrorism related activities, which are often carried out in cyberspace with intent to undermine national security and public safety.

This is the case for many cybercrime legislations across the world, including the one used in South Africa. Rather, the bill focuses more on interfering with the private rights of citizens, both at home and abroad, as they interact with the internet, social media and cyberspace on a daily basis.