Press advocates warn that social networks and Honduran digital media could be censored if cybersecurity law is approved

The Honduran National Congress is discussing the approval of a law that aims to regulate activity and content on the internet, and would obligate website administrators to do the same.

The National Law for Cybersecurity and Protection Against Acts of Hatred and Discrimination on the Internet and Social Networks, recently presented by National Party congressman Marcos Paz Sabillón, would be part of the implementation of the national cybersecurity strategy that is part of the new Honduran Criminal Code.

According to the Honduran freedom of expression organization C-Libre, the bill violates the provisions of Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, paragraph 3, which rejects any official or particular control over any media that serves to spread information, ideas and opinions.

According to the draft of the bill, the law would create an Inter-institutional Committee for Cybersecurity that would be responsible for formulating, designing, implementing and monitoring compliance with the law according to the National Cybersecurity Strategy put forth in the new penal code.

This committee would be formed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Commission of Banking and Insurance, the National Registry of Persons, the General Directorate of Merchant Marines, the Honduran Agency of Civil Aeronautics, the Institute of Access to Public Information, the National Commission of Telecommunications, among other main state agencies.

The director of C-Libre, Edy Tabora, told the Knight Center that before this initiative, there were already enough mechanisms in Honduras to control freedom of expression on the internet. "The only thing missing in the country is the cyberpolice and this censorship committee (the inter-institutional committee for cybersecurity that the law proposes) would eventually operationalize this issue of the cyberpolice that exists for other things," he added.

"For example, there is a communications intervention unit that has more or less been carrying out that function and that relies on the Directorate of Intelligence. And in turn, the immediate and supreme head of all this is a very political body that is the National Council of Defense and Security, whose head is the President of the Republic," Tabora said.

According to the congressional commission in charge of taking consultations on the bill, some of the recommendations made by various institutions and civil society organizations have been incorporated in the draft of the law, with the aim of protecting Hondurans’ constitutional guarantees. However, human rights organizations and journalistic associations consider it a mechanism for restricting freedom of expression and thought, Proceso reported.

Although – according to the congressional commission in charge of socializing the bill – some of the recommendations made by various consulted institutions and civil society organizations have been incorporated, in order to protect the constitutional guarantees of Hondurans. However, human rights organizations and journalistic associations consider it a restriction mechanism on freedom of expression and thought, Proceso reported.

This law is being questioned and rejected by various civil society and journalism organizations who consider it to be a "gag law," a new way of censoring freedom of expression in Honduras.

According to the newspaper El Heraldo, the debate on the national cybersecurity law is suspended in the Legislative Chamber until it finishes consulting all institutions and sectors involved and their recommendations are reviewed. However, National Party congressman Nelson Márquez said the discussion could be resumed at the regular sessions of the National Congress later this week, the site reported.

For the participation of civil society organizations in the application of the law, the draft legislation considers the creation of a Council of Social Oversight. Through this, society can follow up on what the Inter-institutional Committee for Cybersecurity dictates.

The secretary of the Association of Journalists of Honduras (CPH), Dagoberto Rodríguez, said the controversial bill "violates freedom of expression and doing it – forming this committee [council] – would mean to endorse it and we do not agree as it is proposed," El Heraldo reported.

According to a C-Libre report, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (Cohep) met with the multiparty special committee of the National Congress that takes consultations on the bill. In that meeting, Cohep members were willing to offer recommendations to the law to make sure that it did not affect the companies they represent.

However, El Heraldo published after that meeting that although Cohep will contribute to the legislation with its recommendations, Cohep said that neither it nor the CHP would be part of the social oversight council.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) urged the Honduran National Congress not to restrict the freedom of expression of Hondurans with this bill. “Special laws are not needed to regulate offenses that could be committed on the Internet when these are already contemplated in the general regulations,” the organization posted online, also referring to the principles of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights System and the UN.

According to C-Libre, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza, also expressed his concern regarding this bill and warned that people who could be affected by this legislation can appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.