Higher Penalties for ‘Fake News!’

The Summary Jurisdiction Offenses (Amendment) Bill 2021 (The Bill), which seeks to increase the penalty for spreading or publishing false news, was introduced in the sitting of the House of Representatives last week Friday by Minister of Education Hon. Francis Fonseca to stem the current “infodemic” as it relates to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Bill will amended section 3 of the principal Act by inserting the following new subsection immediately after subsection (4) which will read: “Notwithstanding subsection (4), a person who commits an offense under subsection (1) (ix) is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $3,000 or to imprisonment for a term of six months.”

The Amendment specifically deals with persons who, under section (ix), “Maliciously fabricates or knowingly spreads abroad or publishes, whether by writing or by word of mouth or otherwise, any false news or false report tending to create or foster public alarm or to produce public detriment.”

Previously anyone who was found guilty of the offense, in the first instance, was liable of a fine not exceeding $300 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. For a second offense, the person would be liable to a fine not exceeding $600 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.

While Minister Fonseca has explained to the Reporter that the amendment covers all areas, he explained that it became necessary to stem the flood of misinformation as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Fonseca, the misinformation including the origin of the virus, the details of particular cases, and possible cures or remedies, present a challenge in itself. 

While he concurs that some internet users share misleading or inaccurate information inadvertently out of concern for their loved ones, there are those that exploit societal fears, sometimes for private gain, and in so doing interfere with the responses to the ongoing health crisis. As such the amendment will be fine-tuned so that offenders will be identified based on a specific set of guidelines, said Fonseca.

“So, instead of prescribing a specific provision to address spreading of false news in relation to COVID-19, the provision under the Summary Jurisdiction Offenses Act is best suited to combat the threat of misinformation and disinformation. The offense … is not committed unless certain elements are satisfied and as such it is not an offense that can be used arbitrarily to censor individuals or deprive them of their right to freedom of expression unless such expression creates a public detriment and that individual did so intentionally,” explained Fonseca.

Last week, the Reporter spoke to several lawyers and even one senior media personality who suggested that the amendment was too broad-based and that it seems to be attacking Free Speech. It is worth underscoring that it is not a “new” law, but rather an amendment to a law that has long since existed in the laws of Belize.

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