President Abdulla Yameen has signed into law a draconian bill that sets hefty fines and jail terms for journalists and individuals found guilty of slander.
The Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act was published in the government’s official journal today.
The law, which drew widespread condemnation, allows regulators to close newspapers and other media if they fail to pay fines.
Journalists claim Yameen has sounded the death knell for free speech and press freedom in the Maldives, and set the stage for the jailing of journalists and closure of media outlets critical of the government.
The bill’s passage led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV.
By signing the law, the president, who is facing a colossal legitimacy crisis over allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, ignored appeals to scrap or amend the law by journalists, human rights groups and the international community.
The European Union and the United Kingdom added to the chorus of concern today, with the EU saying the criminalization of defamation poses a direct threat to media, the opposition and civil society groups.
“The penalization of such acts, in a country where the independence and functioning of the judiciary is not in compliance with international standards, is aggravating the situation further,” the EU said.
The British high commission described the law as a setback for freedom of expression in the country. “The broadly defined restrictions and severe penalties set out in the bill fall short of widely accepted international standards, as well the core values affirmed in the Commonwealth Charter.”
The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives has defended the law claiming protecting one’s good name is an Islamic tenet. It will also professionalise journalism and restore respect, they said.
It was introduced to the parliament after an audit report revealed the theft of some US$80million from state coffers by senior government officials. Yameen has categorically denied involvement in the Maldives’ biggest ever corruption scandal.
Slanderous speech is defined as direct and indirect remarks, content, gestures, sounds, drawings that are perceived to defame individuals. The law also criminalises speech that breach social norms, threatens national security and breaks Islamic tenets.
For members of the public, a fine of MVR25,000 to MVR2million 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.
Journalists found guilty are required to pay between MVR50,000 and MVR150,000, while media offices are required to pay between MVR50,000 and MVR2million.
Failure to pay the fine can lead to a jail term of up to six months and the closure of newspapers and media offices. The verdicts can only be appealed after the fine is paid.
Speech or content that is anti-Islamic is penalized by up to five years in jail, under provisions in the 1994 Religious Unity Act.
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. While whistleblowers are protected, they are required to prove the truth of their claims.
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.