By SANCHESKA DORSETT
Tribune Staff Reporter
FORMER Court of Appeal President Dame Joan Sawyer has questioned the timing of the proposed Interception of Communications Bill (ICB) and said she found it “suspicious” that it was being introduced “long after the creation” of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
The remarks were contained in a letter shared on We March Bahamas’ Facebook page, said to be written by Dame Joan. We March Bahamas is planning a protest for today at 4pm against the legislation.
Amid growing pushback, last night Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson again defended the need for the bill but announced that her office will lead a “period of public consultation” on the legislation.
She said this decision was made because of concerns that the public is being “misled very substantially” about the content of the proposed legislation.
Meanwhile in her letter, Dame Joan said she found it interesting that Mrs Maynard-Gibson would be so “gung ho” to push the legislation when the senator has argued in several cases where she took a difference stance.
According to the letter, Dame Joan also said as presently drafted, the bill also appears to go behind the veil of attorney client privilege.
On Monday, Free National Movement Leader Dr Hubert Minnis also critcised the bill saying the timing of the introduction of the legislation so close to the next general election raises questions about the government’s motives.
Dr Minnis said the legislation was being “rushed and rammed down the throats” of the Bahamian people.
Last night, Mrs Maynard-Gibson said much of the debate over the issue has been partisan.
She said the Interception of Communications Bill has two main purposes: “To ensure that the police have a critical crime-fighting tool in their arsenal, by modernising the law that allows the police to intercept the planning and execution of serious crimes, including drug and gun trafficking, cybercrimes and other criminal activities; and the second is to add a new privacy protection for Bahamian citizens, so that from now on, independent judicial review would be required before a citizen’s communications could be monitored or intercepted.”
She also said that in her consultations with various people and groups, “the more people learn about the legislation, the more they support it.”
“That is because all Bahamians who are concerned about crime and security want to ensure that our police have a legal path to intercepting the communications of criminals,” Mrs Maynard-Gibson said. “They also understand that the Listening Devices Act, first passed 45 years ago, long before electronic and digital communications became commonplace, did not keep pace with modern technology.
“In addition, contrary to many of the concerns that have been raised, the legislation adds, rather than removes, protection for private citizens. It does so by adding new protective steps - a judge in the Supreme Court must grant the police permission to intercept any citizen’s communications, if the judge finds that reasonable suspicion is justified and the Supreme Court sets a time limit for the duration of the interception. Any extension beyond that time limit must be granted by the Supreme Court.
“And the Supreme Court can also give instructions as to how and when those records should be destroyed when the threat is removed. These new protective steps safeguard citizen privacy in a way that meets concerns raised in a recent Privy Council case on the Listening Devices Act, which specifically recommended that consideration be given to providing greater protections to Bahamian citizens.”
She added: “Because we are concerned that the public has been misled very substantially about the content of this legislation, we have decided to add a period of public consultation, which will be led by the Office of the Attorney General. During this period, we will work with civil society to ensure that Bahamians will have an opportunity to learn about and review the legislation, have their questions answered and their concerns addressed.”
The Interception of Communications Bill will provide for the “interception of all communications networks regardless of whether they are licensed as public or not.”
The bill says this will include telecommunications operators, internet providers and postal services.
Under the current draft, the commissioner of police, or someone acting on his behalf, would have to petition the attorney general to make an “ex parte” application to a judge in chambers for an interception warrant.
Critics have said the bill can impede civil liberties if enacted without public consultation.
Last night, leading civil society group Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG) welcomed the Attorney General’s announcement.
“ORG commends the Attorney General for recognising the value of public education and engagement in such an important bill which may carry implications for privacy, freedom of expression, and the effectiveness of law enforcement,” a statement from the group said.
“Open processes and consultation in the development of legislation not only improves the quality of rules and programs but also encourages compliance and reduces enforcement costs for both governments and citizens. It increases the free exchange of information allowing both the government and people to be better informed.
“As an organisation committed to responsible, accountable, and transparent governance ORG believes that a country is best served when members of all sectors of society - government, civil society, private industry and the public - collaborate for the betterment of the nation. We hope that this announcement is the beginning of a substantive dialogue between these sectors on the concerns and merits of this bill.”