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Papua New Guinea: Cybercrime law used to criminalise expression while concerns remain around proposed media law | #cybercrime | #computerhacker


PNG Minister for Information and Communication Technology, Timothy Masiu (Photo Credit: PNG Facts)

Papua New Guinea’s civic space is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Among concerns previously documented are the harassment and threats against human rights defenders, particularly those working on land and environmental rights, intimidation and restrictions against journalists and excessive force during protests.

James Marape is now into his second term as prime minister, and according to Human Rights Watch, despite promising to address rampant corruption and discrimination against women, PNG’s human rights record has not improved. Prime Minister Marape has also continued his criticism of the press since his re-election in August 2022.

In January 2024, Marape declared a 14-day state of emergency in the capital, Port Moresby, after 16 people were killed in riots as crowds looted and burned shops. The violence erupted in Port Moresby on the evening of 10th January 2024 after a group of soldiers, police officers and prison guards launched protests over unexplained deductions to their pay.

In February 2024, the UN Human Rights Office urged the government to effectively address escalating tribal violence and to engage with provincial and local leaders in a dialogue to achieve durable peace and respect for human rights in the Highlands region. Conflicts among 17 tribal groups have progressively escalated since elections in 2022 over a range of issues including land disputes and clan rivalry.

According to Amnesty International, there are at least 55 men in Papua New Guinea who were previously detained on Manus Island as part of Australia’s offshore detention regime. They do not have work rights and do not receive any sustainable means of income support or medical care.

In recent months, criminal defamation laws continue to be used to silence expression while concerns have been raised over a media development policy and how it could impact press freedom. A media outlet came under attack from the Prime Minister while a protest by security led to riots.

Expression

Criminal defamation law used to silence expression

In November 2023, a man from Hela Province was arrested and charged by the police in Port Moresby for committing cybercrime against the Hela Governor, Philip Undialu.

Rickson Apa of Pureni Hela Province was accused of producing, uploading and circulating multiple videos, audios and text messages containing defamatory comments against the governor. The videos went viral on social media, prompting the governor to file a complaint with the Cyber Crime Unit in Port Moresby. Apa was arrested but later released on bail.

PNG’s Cybercrime Act that was passed in December 2016 has been used to silence criticism. It has been criticised by the opposition, journalists and activists for its implications for the freedom of expression and political discourse.

The government defines cybercrime as “offences committed using electronic devices, systems and or networks.” The Act covers a whole range of illegal online activities including defamatory publication. The section on defamation highlights electronic material that can be deemed to directly or indirectly harm a person’s reputation or profession or cause other people to ‘avoid’ the supposed defamed person.

Defamation carries a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to one million Kina (approx. US$13,800). The Act does not have a clear section or subsection that protects the freedom of expression.

Such a law is inconsistent with the consensus that has grown in recent years in support of the decriminalisation of defamation. In General Comment 34, the UN Human Rights Committee urged states to decriminalise defamation and called on those retaining criminal defamation provisions to ensure that they do not carry the threat of imprisonment. Human rights courts, international and regional human rights bodies and human rights mandate-holders have similarly called for the repeal and reform of criminal defamation provisions.

In another case, a lawyer was acquitted in December 2023 of defamation under the Cybercrime Act. He was charged in 2019 after accusing a senior police investigator on Facebook of being bribed by the opposing party in an ongoing criminal case to evict his client.

Ongoing concerns around proposed media law

Concerns remain that a media law proposed in February 2023 by the Papua New Guinea Information and Communication Technology Minister, Timothy Masiu, could lead to more government control over the country’s relatively free media.

According to reports, the bill proposes improving journalistic standards but alarm has grown about the finer details, including sections that give the government the “power to investigate complaints against media outlets, issue guidelines for ethical reporting, and enforce sanctions or penalties for violations of professional standards.” There are also concerns that the law will punish journalists who create content that is against the country’s development objectives.

The government only gave two weeks for submissions, which was eventually extended to three.

Neville Choi, the president of the PNG Media Council, had previously expressed concern about the government’s plans, warning: “Undermining media freedom diminishes the role of the media as the mouthpiece of the people, holding those in power to account.

In February 2024, Former Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill raised concerns around curbs to free speech and media freedom and called the proposal “deeply concerning” and “to be vehemently opposed every way possible”.

However, the minister, Timothy Masiu, said the policy, which is still to go to the Cabinet, would emphasise media quality, accessibility and responsibility when disseminating information. He said the policy is going through the Social, Law and Order Sector Heads vetting and clearance process before it is presented to cabinet.

Media outlet comes under attack from Prime Minister

A media outlet came under attack from the Prime Minister after it raised concerns about a circular that could curb media freedom,

On 13th November 2023, the Post-Courier carried a front-page article titled “PM Stops Media Freedom,” which reported that all media statements from ministers, government MPs and provincial governments must be approved by the Prime Minister’s office before they are distributed for public consumption

The Office of the Prime Minister refuted the article and said the headline of the newspaper misrepresented the circular, which was for coordinated information dissemination.

It said that: “The fourth estate should engage in responsible reporting, free from bias and distortion. Today’s front-page coverage, turning an internal circular into an allegation against the Prime Minister, raises concerns about the impartiality and independence of the news agency.

Peaceful assembly

Security personnel protest around salary deductions leads to riots

On 10th January 2024, 200 disgruntled police, corrections and army officers walked off the job and gathered at Unagi Oval to protest about wrongful salary deductions which caused them financial hardship. The protesters also stormed into parliament.

During the protest, Police Association president Lowa Tambua demanded an answer as to why there had been deductions which ranged between USD 26 and USD 80.”We want an immediate answer from the Minister of Police and the Prime Minister,” Tambua said.

The Assistant Police Commissioner Anthony Wagambie addressed the protesters. According to the Internal Revenue Commission (IRC), a technical glitch on the payroll system caused the deductions.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International PNG (TIPNG) says the frustration amongst police and other public servants over tax calculations is just the tip of the iceberg of a dysfunctional government system. It called on the PNG government to engage immediately in genuine open dialogue with the police representatives to address their legitimate grievances.

The protests then led to widespread rioting, looting and property damage that was reported across Port Moresby, with several buildings on fire and at least 16 killed. Hospitals reported receiving casualties with burns and bullet wounds. Police Commissioner David Manning called for all people in Port Moresby to “clear the streets” and “go home” on 11th January. He referred to existing standing orders on the use of force and firearms that came into effect in 2023 – that authorise the use of lethal force against anyone carrying a bush knife.

Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze responded by stating: “It is imperative that Papua New Guinea authorities respond to this violence in a way that protects human rights and avoids further loss of life. The use of unnecessary or excessive force by law enforcement officers will only serve to escalate tensions. Alarmingly, an existing police directive authorises the use of lethal force in violation of human rights standards”.



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