Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Reporters Without Borders concerned about impact of Data Protection Bill

Published:Wednesday | May 16, 2018 | 3:25 PM
Margaux Ewen - RSF photo

Internationally respected press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to Dr Andrew Wheatley, the Chairman of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament currently examining the Data Protection Bill, to express concerns about the chilling effect which the proposed legislation could have on journalism.

RSF, which produces the annual World Press Freedom Index, is suggesting that the Parliament amend the Bill to include a blanket exemption for journalists.

The group’s suggestion echoes similar proposals made by the Press Association of Jamaica and the Media Association of Jamaica.

RSF says it does not believe that the Bill makes a sufficient distinction between gathering “data” for journalistic activities and gathering data for regular commercial purposes and says the Bill’s negative impact on journalism could outweigh the advantages the legislation is supposed to provide.

The organisation says it acknowledges the existing exemptions for journalism in the Bill as drafted, RSF Executive Director for North American Margaux Ewen says a clear blanket exemption for journalists should be provided instead of a handful of provisions.

RSF notes that without a blanket exemption, the proposed legislation is potentially threatening for journalists and media outlets.

“It says it aims to protect “sensitive personal data,” including “political opinions, philosophical beliefs, religious beliefs or other beliefs of a similar nature,” all of which are examples of subjects journalists focus their reporting on. How can journalists report on matters of public interest and hold those in power accountable under such a law?” asks Ewan.

Concerns 

Specific provisions of the Bill about which RSF is raising concern include the power given to the Information Commissioner to enforce, exempt, and penalise data controllers, which would include journalists.

RSF says it appreciates the desire to make the Office of the Commissioner an independent one but notes the lack of checks and balances in how the office will operate, leading to concerns “that the Commissioner has too much power to decide how this legislation would apply to journalists.”

“Submitting an annual assessment of all data obtained by a news outlet, as expected under section 47 of the Bill, would be immensely burdensome, especially on freelance journalists or smaller media organisations,” says Ewen.

RSF also highlights the broad powers of enforcement given to the Commissioner including section 46, which provides for data to be destroyed if the Commissioner decides that data protection standards have been breached.

“Such an enforcement power can be dangerous in its subjectivity and may discourage or prevent journalists from writing about topics that don’t fall in line with the Commissioner’s political leanings, beliefs, or biases. And while the Bill instructs the Commissioner to consider “individual damage or distress” when deciding whether to use its enforcement powers, it doesn’t define these terms, nor does it direct the Commissioner to weigh this against the public’s interest in press freedom,” says Ewan.

RSF also expressed concern about the provisions in the Bill which introduce harsh penalties such as imprisonment for several years or millions of dollars in fines, saying that these exemplify the “potentially devastating impact the Data Protection Act could have on Jamaica’s media environment,”.

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