Defamation bill on Majlis agenda as free speech campaign gains momentum

Defamation bill on Majlis agenda as free speech campaign gains momentum
July 31 17:01 2016

A controversial bill on criminalising defamation and restricting free speech has been placed on the agenda for Monday’s sitting of parliament despite international concern and growing opposition at home.

A group of journalists launched a campaign last week to raise awareness about the dangers posed by the proposed law, warning that it would spell the end of a free press as well as freedom of expression in the Maldives.

The campaign is dubbed #27geDhifaauga (In Defence of 27) in reference to the constitutional article that guarantees freedom of expression.

“It’s been just three days since we launched the movement, and we’ve already made enough noise on social media and elsewhere about the bill,” Ali Naafiz, assistant editor of newspaper Mihaaru, told The Maldives Independent.

“We’ve been able to get people, even members of the public, to talk about the bill and how it would affect them. In the limited time that we have before the parliament rushes the bill, we’re trying to use social media and other means of communication to reach out to the maximum number of people.”

Preliminary debate is set to begin tomorrow. MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, who make up a majority in the 85-member house, have previously discussed fast-tracking the legislation.

Last week, the Maldives Media Council said the revised defamation bill was submitted despite assurances from Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan that the government will address concerns raised by journalists.

The MMC urged lawmakers to meet with the council and to consider keeping civil remedies for defamation in place.

The council had proposed imposing a fine that does not exceed the yearly salary of a civil servant.

But PPM MP Jaufar Dawood, who submitted the bill, told local media that he will not withdraw it and dismissed concerns raised by journalists. The bill was proposed because people’s reputations were being tarnished in the media, he said.

Dawood has also been defending the bill on social media, stressing that the constitution allows freedom of speech “in a manner that is not contrary to a tenet of Islam”.

The constitution also guarantees the right to “protect one’s name and good reputation,” he noted.

The bill criminalises any forms of speech, verbal or written, as well as gestures and drawings that are considered defamatory, contrary to any tenet of Islam or “general societal norms,” or deemed to pose a threat to national security.

It prescribes fines of between MVR50,000 (US$3,200) and MVR2 million (US$130,000) for violations. Offenders who fail to pay the court-imposed fine would face a jail term of between three to six months.

According to the bill, complaints against individuals alleging defamatory speech must be filed with the police, which will investigate and forward cases for criminal prosecution.

Journalists would also not be able to report allegations if the person it is directed at refuses to comment.

The state’s media regulatory bodies would meanwhile be authorised to take action against media organisations without conducting an inquiry. The broadcasting regulator and the media council can issue warnings, compel outlets to remove content and publicly apologise, suspend media outlets or programmes, and impose the fine of up to MVR2 million.

If the fine is not paid, the courts can sentence individual journalists to jail. A court judgment can only be appealed after the fine is paid.

Social media users could also face criminal prosecution over defamatory tweets or Facebook posts.

On Friday, Amnesty International called on the government to scrap plans to enact the law, which it said would have “a stifling effect on the right to freedom of expression”.

“The use of defamation laws with the purpose or effect of inhibiting peaceful criticism of government or public officials violates the right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International opposes laws which criminalise defamation,” the international human rights group said.

“Libel, slander and similar issues should be treated as matters for civil litigation.”

The European Union also warned that the bill represents “a step backwards” for the Maldives.

Naafiz said the free speech campaign has gained “overwhelming support from all sectors, including artists, actors and civil rights activists.”

He added: “Some are of course afraid to speak up due to their political affiliations, and fear of losing their jobs and similar arbitrary actions. But they too are contributing to the movement in creating artworks and reaching out to the people.”

The #27geDhifaauga campaign “is a non-partisan movement,” Naafiz stressed.

“In addition to the social media campaign, which includes awareness posters and video spots, we’re in the process of distributing information pamphlets at public places and lobbying parliamentarians especially those from the ruling party,” he said.

“We also appear regularly on television to speak about the bill and its impact, and run stories on all concerned online news websites.”

He noted that a silent protest staged by journalists on Independence Day was blocked by riot police.

“But we remain unfazed and are planning more street activities, including protests,” he said.

“The government-controlled parliament will without a doubt once again rubber-stamp this backward law. However, we’re encouraged by the support from the public and we will continue our activities. Our fight to protect our fundamental right should and will go on.”