Maldivian journalists have urged the government to reconsider a bill that criminalises defamation, expressing grave concern over proposed restrictions on press freedom and right to free speech.
The defamation and freedom of expression bill will “prevent journalists and citizens from speaking out over serious accusations of corruption and the integrity of state officials,” ten senior journalists said in a statement today.
The draft law – introduced last week by ruling Progressive Party of Maldives Parliamentary Group leader MP Ahmed Nihan – prescribes hefty fines of between MVR50,000 (US$3,200) and MVR5 million (US$324,000) as penalties for violations. Offenders who fail to pay the court-imposed fine will face a one-year jail term.
Newspapers and websites that publish “defamatory content” may also have their licenses revoked.
Ten journalists, including editors of leading media outlets Haveeru, Sun Online, Avas, V News, Raajje TV, Dhi TV and The Maldives Independent, signed the petition.
Criticizing the bill for placing the onus of proving the truth of a claim on whistle-blowers, the journalists noted that the bill obstructs the constitutional right to engage in debate regarding the effectiveness of policies and integrity of officials on the state pay roll.
“If the bill is passed into law, it allows the police to conduct criminal inquiries against those who criticise, or express such criticism via the news, in the guise of protecting reputation,” the statement read.
“Such provisions render the bill unconstitutional.”
The draft legislation states that the constitutional right to freedom of speech can be narrowed or restricted if an expression contradicts a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, defames or causes damage to an individual, or violates societal norms.
Criminalisation of defamation would pave the way for the proliferation of unregistered news websites, the statement said, adding that the government could increase fines for defamation instead of proposing a jail term.
The move to criminalise defamation comes after President Abdulla Yameen said in a speech last month that the civil remedy of a maximum MVR5,000 in damages was “not enough” to hold individuals accountable for bringing state institutions such as the central bank into disrepute.
His remarks followed the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party alleging Yameen’s involvement in embezzling some US$80million from a state-owned tourism company in a case that is the Maldives’ biggest ever corruption scandal.
Opposition aligned Raajje TV has also alleged Yameen employed a sorcerer at the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo, and aired audios of conversations between senior government officials that appear to indicate they bribed judges and orchestrated bomb plots.
Yameen’s announcement of plans to criminalise defamation drew stringent criticism from the opposition and NGOs.
The freedom of expression bill was among the government’s 207-bill legislative agenda.
In May, then-PG Muhthaz Muhsin said his office was looking into prosecuting opposition politicians for libel and slander following allegations linking Yameen with the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali in 2012.
Later that month, Yameen threatened to prosecute Adhaalath Party president Sheikh Imran Abdulla, who had said in a speech at a historic anti-government protest on May 1 that the president and his former deputy Ahmed Adeeb would know the truth behind the murder.
Imran was found guilty of terrorism last month and sentenced to 12 years in prison over his speech at the May Day rally.
The People’s Majlis had formally decriminalised defamation in November 2009 during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed.