Tue | Feb 25, 2020

MAJ sees threat to press freedom in Data Protection Bill

Published:Wednesday | February 28, 2018 | 12:07 AMErica Virtue/ Senior Gleaner Writer

Five submissions were made at yesterday’s sitting of the joint select committee of Parliament hearing deliberations on the Data Protection Bill of 2017, the companion legislation to the National Identification System (NIDS), but it was during the presentation by the Media Association Jamaica Limited (MAJ) that committee Chairman Dr Andrew Wheatley became prosecutorial.

Wheatley, who is the minister of science, energy and technology, assumed the posture of a judge, demanding “yes” or “no” answers from MAJ Chairman Christopher Barnes, who is also managing director of The Gleaner. Barnes, who wrote seeking audience with the committee, said, the “MAJ was deeply concerned about the chilling effects the practical application as written (or even with the amendments as suggested) will have on press freedom, as well as the additional administrative burden it could place on media houses in carrying out their work”.

According to him, the MAJ could not envision how editorial departments of media houses would be able to function on a day-to-day basis in developing and publishing content.

Barnes had just finished his presentation ­ which included, inter alia, concerns about amendments to the current definition of personal data; putting a cap on damages that see fines by data controllers being 10 per cent of the gross income of the violating entity; the power of the information commissioner; and the proposed exemption of the practice of journalism ­ when Wheatley got hot under the collar.

“We find as drafted, this bill raises major concerns for the business of media and concerns with respect to freedom of the press. From our perspective, some of the obligations imposed under the bill as proposed, are inconsistent with the fundamental rights under the Constitution, such as the right to freedom of expression and the right to seek, receive, distribute or disseminate information or opinions, ideas through any media,” said Barnes in opening comments.

According to him, it was clear from careful reading of the bill that it would have a grave impact on the media’s ability to provide news to the citizens of the country and it “threatens our democracy”.

Wheatley interjected during Barnes’ answer to a question from another member, Franklyn Witter, who asked if there were exemptions for journalism in any of the jurisdictions from which the MAJ grounded the basis of its presentation.

During Barnes’ response, Wheatley interrupted, demanding that he answer “yes or no” to the question. Committee member Mark Golding then interrupted Wheatley, reminding him that the presenters were guests of the committee and were not on a “dock”. Wheatley then interrupted Golding to say he was the “chairman of the committee”, and continued his demand for yes or no. Barnes would eventually answer “No Chairman”, before Shena Stubbs-Gibson offered some clarification grounded in case law.

The MAJ joins the Press Association of Jamaica in requesting that the practice of journalism be exempted completely from the provisions of the bill now being discussed. Barnes argues that Jamaica has stringent defamation laws, and fines as outlined by the bill would be a superimposition on the existing law.