Planned U.N. cybercrime treaty threatens to undermine free expression
With the abuse of cybercrime laws to target journalists on the rise globally, states must ensure that a planned U.N. cybercrime treaty does not undermine freedom of expression, a panel of experts said at the 2023 IPI World Congress and Media Innovation Festival.
Cybercrime laws are increasingly being used to criminalize a wide scope of online speech, the panel’s moderator, IPI Director of Advocacy Amy Brouillette, told the audience. Governments such as Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India have taken advantage of vaguely defined provisions in such laws – which can include provisions on “cyber libel”, “cyber terrorism”, national security, or false news – to harass independent media.
Nigeria is a case in point. “It is increasingly dangerous for journalists to work in Nigeria”, Musikilu Mojeed, the editor-in-chief of The Premium Times, said. And the country’s cybercrime law, the Cybercrimes Act (2015), is a key threat. The law is routinely used to arrest and charge journalists and critics. Mojeed cited the case of CrossRiverWatch publisher Agba Jalingo, who was detained in March 2023 under the law for “false news” that caused “annoyance, ill will and insult”. The charges related to an article about suspected corruption in Cross River State. Jalingo had previously been detained for nearly six months in 2019 and 2020 for his reporting and social media posts on alleged corruption by the governor of Cross River State.
Ayesha Tanzeem, director, South & Central Asia, Voice of America said that across South and Central Asia and in Turkey, “there is hardly any country that is not tightening cybercrime laws to use them as a tool for censorship”. She commented that while governments had previously taken control of mainstream media through means like licensing or advertising pressure, they were now adopting cybercrime laws to control online spaces still accessible to journalists, activists, and citizens. “Censorship is not new. This is just the latest space… Most countries are now trying to close the space that has opened up online, after they had already learned how to control the legacy media”, Tanzeem said.
Concern around cybercrime laws is intensifying just as U.N. member states are drawing up a global cybercrime treaty that threatens to open the door to abuse by authoritarian regimes – little wonder, given that the resolution to draft the treaty was introduced by Russia and then co-sponsored by Belarus, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Tanja Fachathaler, policy advisor at Vienna-based digital rights organization epicenter.works, said that a key problem with the draft is that in addition to “core” cyber crimes such as those included in an existing regional agreement called the Budapest Convention, it includes a number of content-related crimes around poorly defined concepts such incitement, extremism, and terrorism.
As if that were not enough, Fachathaler said the draft lacked sufficient language around intent, meaning that there is a risk of “punishing or penalizing people acting in good faith – journalists, human rights activists, security researchers”.
She added: “Not only is the criminalization a problem, but also the treaty provides for very intrusive prosecutorial powers. If really everything came into force the way that we see it now, then that would be a tectonic shift in terms of what powers prosecutorial forces are given. And on top of that, [there] is an entire chapter on international cooperation, so that whatever you can extract or whatever kind of evidence a state can gather it would then be obliged to share with other countries.”
The treaty draft is at a “critical stage”, Fachathaler told the Congress, as the first formal draft–or the “zero draft”–is expected to be finalized this month following five rounds of deliberations.
The dangers of the planned treaty were not lost on the other panelists. Free speech defenders often rely on international law and norms, Tanzeem noted. “An international treaty which curbs the rights or freedom of speech (…) will have a direct impact on the ability of local activists to ask for more protections.”
Mojeed underscored concerns about the draft treaty’s broad scope of crimes and expansive law enforcement powers. Human rights defenders already have their hands full with Nigeria’s own law. The West African regional ECOWAS Court, Mojeed said, already ruled that a part of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act violates African and international human rights guarantees. The government, however, has yet to amend the relevant provision.
He urged journalists to pay attention to the treaty negotiations and the draft text. “The ECOWAS court ruling has shown that cybercrime law has a way of limiting free speech and freedom of the press”, Mojeed said. “Do we really need the cybercrime treaty? It will do more harm to the world than good.”