Freedom of expression at risk as cybercrime legislation used to prosecute online critics in Vanuatu
The state of civic space in Vanuatu is rated as 'narrowed' by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are new concerns about restrictions to freedom of expression in Vanuatu following the arrest of individuals for allegedly posting comments on social media speculating that politicians were responsible for the country’s current COVID-19 outbreak.
The charges relate to alleged comments on Facebook claiming that two politicians in the country had breached COVID quarantine protocols, one of whom had played a role in the community transmission of the virus.
According to The Guardian, a police crackdown on 11th May 2022 saw four people on two separate islands arrested as part of a major investigation by Vanuatu’s Serious Crime Unit, including a factory worker, a printer, a business owner and a Facebook page moderator.
They face charges of cyber stalking, cyber slander and cyber libel and face up to three years in prison and excessive fines of up to three million Vatu (USD 25,838).
One of those charged is Witnol Benkor Tor, a Facebook moderator of a news site known as Vanuatu Politics and News. He was detained after someone posted on his Facebook page under a pseudonym, making allegations that Anthony Iauko, a government MP, breached COVID rules to visit someone in quarantine.
Tor says he does not know who wrote the post and added: “It's just a bullying tactic towards the media and the cyber act will have an impact on freedom of expression here if they use this kind of tactic to manipulate the media, it will have an impact on freedom of expression.”
Vanuatu’s Opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu has accused the government of using the laws for political ends. He said: “What is happening now is that the government and the police are using the excuse of the lockdown restrictions being lifted to basically just try and clamp down on dissent, on anyone having any different views.” The chief executive of the Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, Anne Pakoa, said local journalists are worried by the new cybercrime laws.
These are the first arrests for cyber stalking under Vanuatu’s new cybercrime legislation, the Cybercrime Act No. 22 of 2021. Further, as previously documented, new provisions on criminal libel (Article 120) and slander (Article 121) in the country’s Penal Code Act were passed in April 2021. Under the law, an individual could face up to three years’ imprisonment for false representation on any public platform that is likely to "expose another person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule" or "injure that person’s profession, reputation, office, business, trade or occupation" on public platforms including “television, radio, internet websites, social networking sites and blog sites”.
Observers said at the time that the broad wording of the amendments to the penal code could have a significant chilling effect on journalists and others expressing their opinions online. They also said that the government did not do enough research or consultation and the resulting law is a “huge blow to freedom of speech” in Vanuatu.
The UN Human Rights Committee has 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.