Reporters who cover court cases in the Maldives are being targeted by Penal Code changes proposed by the ruling party, one of many amendments in a 34-page bill published Wednesday.
The Progressive Party of the Maldives wants it to be illegal for journalists to portray a court as lacking the capacity to rule independently and without influence, and that a court is acting in ill faith. It also wants it to be illegal to use audio, video or any electronic equipment inside a courtroom.
Reporters are already prevented from using their own writing materials in court. Smart watches are banned, as are mobile phones and recording devices. Court officials provide journalists with sheets of A4 paper and pencils. There is also a dress code.
It is not clear what the amendments – such as the ones proposed as crimes against Islam – seek to achieve. The constitution says Islam is the state religion and there are already laws that restrict religious freedom and protect Islam from ‘threats’ such as freedom of speech.
When the existing Penal Code was passed in 2015 it was hailed as “a momentous day in the history of the Maldives’ criminal justice system” by former deputy prosecutor general Hussain Shameem.
Government offices, the opposition and influential figures welcomed it too, with the landmark law celebrated for being compatible with Islamic Shari’ah and international human rights standards. It came into effect nearly 10 years after it was first drafted and despite efforts by the judiciary to overhaul it.
The PPM bill said the amendments were needed to “review and reform the law in light of the legal vacuum from the law, to specify important crimes missing from the law and to realign the punishments in light of the way the state of criminality in the Maldives has changed over the years.”
Attorney General Mohamed Anil said in January the government was preparing bills to amend the Penal Code, one of which would cover crimes of treason to the state and crimes of organising and taking part in efforts to overthrow the government.
– ‘Tool for tyranny’ –
The PPM proposed adding a new chapter to the Penal Code called acts that threaten national security. This chapter lists new crimes such as encouraging or advising the military to disobey lawful orders of the state, but there is no detail fleshing them or other offences out.
The bill also proposes increasing baseline and maximum jail sentences for all classes of criminal offences.
Former attorney general Dhiyana Saeed blasted the changes, saying the law should never be used as a “tool for tyranny.”
“These lawmakers must know that they are digging their own graves. If history has taught us anything, it is that someday these repressive laws will haunt the very people who are championing them today,” she said.
The amendments come months before an election and they follow a controversial state of emergency imposed by President Abdulla Yameen, who said there was a bid to topple his government.
Earlier this week the ruling party succeeded in making significant changes to election laws, including eligibility criteria for presidential candidates, despite violating the constitution by not having enough lawmakers present for the vote.
It is likely that the bill will be approved as the opposition is boycotting parliamentary votes and the Supreme Court has ruled that laws can be passed in a “state of necessity” when lawmakers deliberately refuse to attend sittings.
The PPM bill has been proposed by Feydhoo MP Ibrahim Didi.