Defamation penalties for the press detailed in new regulation

Defamation penalties for the press detailed in new regulation
November 16 12:54 2016

The government has published a detailed regulation on imposing fines against journalists and media outlets found guilty of flouting a controversial defamation law.

The Maldives Broadcasting Commission and the Maldives Media Council are vested with the authority to take action against broadcasters and print and online media, respectively, according to the regulation published Monday by the Attorney General’s Office.

The MBC is appointed by the parliament, dominated by the ruling party, while members to the MMC is elected by journalists.

The Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act sets separate fines for the journalist who writes the defamatory article and the media outlet that publishes it. Failure to pay the fines could result in a jail term up to six months for the journalist and the closure of the media outlet.

The widely condemned law criminalises speech or content on four grounds; if found to be either defamatory or anti Islamic, or for breaches of social norms or national security.

The new regulation sets four different bands for the three of the four types of offences. The bands differ for journalists and media offices.

For media offices:

Flouting social norms Defamation and threatening national security
First offence MVR50,000 – MVR250,000 MVR50,000 – MVR500,000
Second offence MVR250,000 – MVR500,000 MVR500,000 – MVR1million
Third offence MVR500,000 – MVR750,000 MVR1million – MVR1.5million
Repeated offences MVR750,000 – MVR1million MVR1.5million – MVR2million

For all three offences, journalists are fined:

  • MVR50,000 – MVR75,000 for the first offence
  • MVR75,000 – MVR100,000 for the second offence
  • MVR100,000 – MVR150,000 for every time the offence is repeated

The fine can only be appealed at a court after it has been paid in full.

Speech or content that is anti-Islamic is penalized by up to five years in jail, under provisions in the 1994 Religious Unity Act.

Journalists claim President Abdulla Yameen has sounded the death knell for press freedom by signing the defamation bill into law. Foreign governments and human rights groups have condemned the law as an attack on free speech and the media.

The bill’s passage led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV. News outlets say are now being forced to practice self censorship to avoid lawsuits.

The defamation law protects remarks made at and documents published by courts, cabinet meetings, and in the course of inquiries launched by law enforcement agencies.

Criticising institutions and reporting on official reports published by foreign organisations is not considered defamatory. Although whistle-blowers are said to be protected, they are required to prove the truth of their claims in court.

The law also places the burden of proof on journalists, and says they may reveal their sources “confidentially” as a defence.

Meanwhile, newspapers and radio and TV stations are required to suspend live coverage of any event if any individual claims they have been slandered.

For members of the public, a fine of MVR25,000 (US$1,621) to MVR2million (US$130,000) is set for content or speech that is defamatory or threaten national security. Content or speech that breach social norms could mean penalties between MVR25,000 to MVR1million (US$64,850).

On September 4, a law firm challenge the defamation law, asking the high court to strike down key provisions on the grounds that it contravened the constitution.

Maumoon Hameed, nephew to Yameen and a partner at Premium Chambers, has previously called the law “a weapon of mass destruction against fundamental rights.”