MDP vice president accused of defaming Elections Commission

MDP vice president accused of defaming Elections Commission
August 17 14:18 2017

Mohamed Shifaz, the vice president of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, has been placed under investigation over a defamation complaint filed by the Elections Commission.

Shifaz was summoned for questioning Tuesday night for alleging during the 2017 council elections campaign that the independent electoral body was subject to undue influence from President Abdulla Yameen, whom he accused of attempting to change results in close races after the ruling party suffered heavy losses in the May 6 polls.

“They wanted to find out how I obtained that information. Although President Yameen wanted to alter the election results, it did not happen because of the EC employees and the awareness of the people,” Shifaz told reporters after emerging from the police headquarters.

As “everyone knows everyone” in a small country like the Maldives, the former lawmaker said he has friends and associates employed at the commission and other state institutions.

The police were authorised to investigate slander and forward cases for prosecution after defamation was re-criminalised by a controversial law passed in August 2016. The defamation investigation comes amid renewed political turmoil with several opposition lawmakers detained or facing prosecution after the four-party coalition secured a majority in parliament.

Shifaz told reporters that the police accused him of spreading false information, stressing that he was exercising the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

“They inquired about the identity of my source. I told them protecting the source is my personal right so I cannot reveal the identity. But I am willing to reveal the source when the time comes or when it necessitates in a court of law,” he said.

The police spokesman declined to comment citing the ongoing investigation.

“President Yameen just lost the parliament majority. He has no support in the Majlis. Before that he lost the people’s support with results of the local council elections,” the former MP for Baarah continued.

“So he is now trying to rule with an iron fist but the people will not give him that opportunity.”

Commissioner of Police Ahmed Areef meanwhile warned last week that the police will investigate defamation of individual officers as “serious cases” and take legal action under the anti-defamation law.

In a circular issued earlier this month, the police chief assured “complete legal assistance” to any officer who decides to personally seek compensation for defamation.

Areef’s assurance came after opposition social media activists began posting photos of individual police officers accused of brutality during regular gatherings and protests during the past five weeks.

The opposition coalition has also been urging officers not to follow “unlawful orders” and warning that they would be held to account under a new administration.

The anti-defamation law introduced hefty fines and jail terms for journalists and individuals found guilty of slander. But whistleblowing, criticism of institutions and references to official reports published by foreign organisations were exempted if the accused can prove the truth of his assertions.

Individuals can be fined between MVR25,000 (US$1,620) to MVR2 million (US$129,700) for content or speech deemed to be either defamatory or a threat to national security.

Failure to pay the fine can lead to a jail term of up to six months.

The re-criminalisation of defamation was widely condemned as an attack on free speech. Journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits or criminal prosecution.

In early April, the broadcasting regulator slapped an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine on Raajje TV for airing a speech at an opposition rally that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.

The hefty fine came on the day the opposition-aligned station paid an MVR200,000 fine imposed in the first punitive action taken under the 2016 defamation law.

More recently,  the country’s main cable television provider was fined MVR500,000 (US$32,425) for rebroadcasting an Al Jazeera corruption exposé in September.