Notwithstanding the fact that the Miscellaneous Provisions (Law Enforcement Officers) Bill, 2019 has been approved by the Lower House with the unanimous support of Government and Opposition, there are elements in it to which the Senate should pay very close attention.
This newspaper understands and supports the need to send a tough message to law enforcement personnel who aid and abet criminals by taking bribes to look the other way; tipping them off about imminent police raids; loaning, renting and selling their uniforms and arms to facilitate crime; and generally undermining the efforts of the Police, Prison, Fire, Customs and Immigration personnel. We agree that these rotten apples are destructive and dangerous to their colleagues who are committed to the pursuit of law and order. This bill is also to be applauded for coming to terms with emerging modern challenges to law enforcement.
In it, National Security Minister Stuart Young has utilised the power of penalty as disincentive. One spectacular example is the 15,000 per cent increase in the fine for wasting police time with false reports which escalates from $1,000 and six months’ imprisonment to $150,000 and five years in jail.
Among the actions which the bill criminalises is the trafficking of items for prisoners by prison officers. This will attract a fine of $500,000 upon summary conviction and $750,000 on indictment, with jail terms of 15 and 20 years, respectively.
However, two elements of the bill that we find problematic is a new broad-brush offence having to do with prison security and the proposed hefty increases in the penalties for obstruction and resisting arrest. If the bill goes into law these would incur fines of $250,000 and $500,000 with jail terms of ten years’ and 15 years’ jail, depending in whether they are on summary conviction or indictment, respectively.
Regarding prison security, the bill criminalises the taking of photos or audio recordings inside a prison as well as the electronic transmission of any image or sound from inside a prison and the conveying of a restricted document in or out of the prison, physically or by electronic means. While we understand the very serious problems that this section attempts to address, we are deeply concerned that it impinges on the constitutional right to press freedom by failing to take into account the qualified privilege allowed to the media to access and report information involving matters of significant public interest.
Imposing a blackout on important information that should be brought to the public’s attention strengthens the hands of those involved in cover-ups of wrong-doing. In democracies, the media are constitutionally empowered to lift the curtain on illegal acts committed behind walls of secrecy in public institutions. Documents, photos and recordings are indispensable to the work of the media. Equally vital are courageous whistle-blowers who continue to be denied legal protection by the Government’s foot-dragging on whistle-blower legislation.
In raising concern about the huge increases in fines and jail-time for persons convicted for obstruction and resisting arrest, this newspaper is mindful of the record, available through the courts, of officers who abuse these charges at the drop of a hat.