A government-sponsored bill criminalizing defamation has drawn fierce criticism from the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The bill, up for debate at the parliament on Monday, is a “serious setback for freedom of speech in the Maldives,” said the US, UK, EU, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands in a strongly worded joint statement issued on Sunday.
“It will allow severe penalties to be imposed on those who which exercise their democratic rights and freedoms,” the statement said, urging President Abdulla Yameen to return to the path of democracy, transparency and the rule of law.
“We express our support for all Maldivians struggling to preserve their hard won democratic institutions and rights,” the statement read.
The bill prescribes fines of up to MVR2million (US$130,000) for slander, and a jail term of up to six months for those unable to pay the fine. Journalists will be barred from reporting on allegations if the accused refuses to respond.
Shoko Noda, the UN resident coordinator in the Maldives, meanwhile called for “broader consultations” with journalists and civil society groups.
I hope broader consultations are held on propsed #FreedomOfExpression bill 2 reflect views of journalists & CSOs 4 inclusive decision making
— Shoko Noda (@shokonoda) July 31, 2016
The bill was first proposed in March in the wake of a historic corruption scandal involving the theft of at least US$80million from state coffers. The president has been accused of masterminding the plot, while MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties, ministers and judges are alleged to have benefited from the stolen money.
The bill is likely to pass as the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives holds a majority in the People’s Majlis.
Some MPs and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, leader of the PPM and Yameen’s half-brother, have spoken out against the bill, according to text message conversations leaked on social media.
MPs Mohamed Musthafa and Ahmed ‘Red Wave’ Saleem are among those who have expressed opposition to the bill.
“The president is a servant of the people. There must be criticism of his actions, for his own good. Criticism does not amount to slander,” Musthafa said in a tweet on Saturday.
Gayoom’s son, MP Faris Maumoon, said in a tweet on Sunday that he would reject the bill, describing it as a threat to freedom of expression.
The Defamation Bill is a threat to freedom of expression as guaranteed by our constitution n intl best practices. I will vote to reject it.
— Ahmed Faris Maumoon (@afarismaumoon) July 31, 2016
But Yameen told MPs that the bill does not contradict international law.
The divide reflects a larger struggle for control of the PPM between the Gayoom brothers.
MP Jaufar Dawood, the bill’s sponsor, has meanwhile refused to make changes to or withdraw the bill. He drew ridicule earlier when he misspelled defamation as deformation in a tweet.
Ruling party MPs have previously discussed fast tracking the legislation, meaning it may be passed into law within a day of the preliminary debate.
Journalists have launched a campaign against the bill, arguing that it will be the death knell for press freedom here.
The campaign, dubbed ‘In Defence of 27’ or 27 ge dhifaauga, in reference to the constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of speech, has noted the bill would also stifle online debate as social media users could also face prosecution for Facebook posts and tweets.
Journalists are planning to stage a third protest against the bill outside the parliament house on Monday.
The police prevented a silent protest by journalists on July 26 and arrested some 18 on April 3 from a sit-in organised against an earlier version of the bill.
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.”
“Libel, slander and similar issues should be treated as matters for civil litigation,” the human rights group said.
The Maldives decriminalized defamation in 2009.