Mauritius doesn’t get a whole lot of international attention. The island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, officially the Republic of Mauritius, is a diverse country that is highly ranked for democracy, and economic and political freedom. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit has named the country the only “full democracy” in Africa, and Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report calls it a free country. The country’s Constitution (Art. 12) protects freedom of expression, with exceptions in line with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But readers of this blog know that democracies, from France to India and many places in between, often get Internet regulation terribly wrong. Recent amendments to Mauritius’ ICT Act are exemplary of that fact.
The Information and Communications Technologies Act was created in 2001 and covers a broad array of topics, from fraud to identity theft to tampering with telecommunications infrastructure. The Act also defines as an offense the use of telecommunication equipment to “send, deliver or show a message which is obscene, indecent, abusive, threatening, false or misleading, or is likely to cause distress or anxiety.”
But if that weren’t troubling enough, the latest amendment has added even more adjectives to that list, thus potentially criminalizing messages that “annoy”, “humiliate”, or even “inconvenience” the receiver or reader. As Mauritian journalist Lowena Sowkhee recently wrote:
Parents should now fear that their children can get arrested for their use of social media. It shall now be easy to be punished if we publish, share or comment on posts that may annoy another individual. There is no need for the complainant to prove that he has been distressed by the post. Distress is a mental condition, which is difficult to prove.
Furthermore, the latest amendment removes a clause in (h)(ii) that previously included the phrase “for the purpose of causing”, thus removing any need to prove intent to harm.
The government has defended the Act as “important recourse for victims of social networks misuses to report their grievances,” noting that “social media companies are facing increased international scrutiny as the number of victims of online dangers is sharply increasing.”
Sowkhee, on the other hand, calls the amendment a “clear violation of freedom of expression,” comparing it to section 66(A) of India’s Information Technology Act, which was struck down by the country’s Supreme Court as unconstitutional and as “arbitrary excessively and disproportionately” invasive of the right to free speech. While some might call Sowkhee’s comparison of the law to countries like Iran or China a stretch, the amendments to the ICT Act are sadly in line with the laws of countries such as Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan—none of which are democracies. If the government of Mauritius has regard for the freedom for which the country is known, it should immediately repeal these amendments.