Independent Senator Paul Richards makes his contribution on a motion to consider amendments to the Interception of Communications (Amendment) Bill, 2020, during yesterday’s sitting of the Senate at the Red House, Port-of-Spain.

The Interception of Communications (Amendment) Bill should state exceptions for reporters working in the public interest who may receive unsolicited information from prisoners, says Independent Senator Paul Richards.

Richards did so during yesterday’s Senate debate of the bill, which is geared to allowing intercepted transmissions from prisons and prison vans to be admissible in courts.

The bill was previously passed in the Senate but was amended in the Lower House last week and the bill’s requirement for a special majority vote for passage was removed. Amendments were returned to the Senate yesterday.

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said amendments were being done after legal opinion was sought from senior counsel Fyad Hosein, who advised the bill could be passed without special majority subject to certain amendments. This would avoid a challenge to the bill’s constitutionality.

Al-Rawi said the Director of Public Prosecutions and DPP adviser Edward Jenkins QC also said the bill’s initial form was open to criticism.

“I couldn’t watch Mr Hosein – or the DPP or Mr Jenkins – cokey eye and say they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Al-Rawi said.

He said prisoners are using communication in jail.

“People are being called upon to kill other people with instructions coming from in prisons,” the AG said, adding if the bill wasn’t passed every matter involving interception of evidence was at risk.

Richards, who has himself worked in the media, said the interception of transmission in prison vans was a “no brainer” globally. But he noted there may be concern that journalists may be caught up in negative situations if they speak to inmates. However, he said journalists should be protected from the bill’s penalties, since they may be working on stories regarding atrocities concerning prison inmates. He said information may come to journalists regarding conversations in some legitimate form and they may have to work on this in the public interest.

Richards, who asked to see Hosein’s legal advice, also wanted to know if the bill would be retroactive.

UNC Senator Wade Mark said media personnel would be “in trouble” with the bill. He agreed no right is absolute, but “if you’re going to comprise the people’s rights, do it (compromise) properly.”

Mark said the Senate wasn’t a “parlour” and he wasn’t taking the AG’s word on Hosein’s advice. He called for Government to produce the opinions of Hosein, the Chief Parliamentary counsel and Jenkins. He said the UNC would take the bill to court.

Mark said senators are decision-makers and couldn’t be expected to abdicate their role, “… Because one senior counsel told the AG that what we passed was unconstitutional … and that we must bow to the ‘superior wisdom’. We’re not accepting blindly any submission from this senior counsel.”

Independent Senator Sophia Chote, who slammed the AG’s approach, said she couldn’t accept the logic of first seeking a special majority vote for the bill and now seeking a simple majority vote.

“This is a turnaround. I don’t appreciate that sort of practice,” she said, slamming the basis given as Hosein’s legal advice and others’ comments.

She said that was like a junior going to court and giving the excuse that his seniors had given a certain position.

“I don’t appreciate the explanation, perhaps I don’t understand the explanations,” she added.

Chote said many lofty comments were made on rule of law on the issue but the average citizen wanted to know how the bill would impact them and that wasn’t discussed. She said senators should also have at least been given clear precise language in amendments, which she felt actually require a special majority vote. Chote said prisoners were citizens still.

Independent Senator Anthony Vieira said he didn’t think prisoners – whose rights were restricted by courts’ due process- had right to privacy if caught conducting illegal or surreptitious exchanges. He noted many people being killed in T&T, including a former senator assassinated by organised crime. He said one couldn’t turn a blind eye to this and talk about others’ rights. But Vieira said the bill was a step in the right direction, trying to balance privacy rights and the need to combat criminality.