A law firm mounted Sunday a challenge to President Abdulla Yameen’s defamation law, asking the high court to strike down key provisions on the grounds that it contravened the constitution.
Premier Chambers is asking the appellate court to overturn 24 provisions of the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, widely condemned as a setback for free speech in the Maldives.
The firm asked the court to grant a stay order on the controversial law’s enforcement. It contravenes some 22 constitutional provisions, including those guaranteeing freedom speech and freedom of the press, the firm contended.
Maumoon Hameed, nephew to Yameen and a partner at Premium Chambers, has previously called the law “a weapon of mass destruction against fundamental rights.”
The law sets hefty fines for speech or content that is defamatory. Failure to pay the fine could lead to a six-month jail term.
Journalists claim the president 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 provisions that are being challenged include Article 6, which criminalises speech that is defamatory, anti Islamic, threatens national security, and breaches social norms. A provision banning speech that threatens national security and provisions setting fines and jail terms are also being contested.
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.
The president ignored appeals to scrap or amend the law by journalists, human rights groups and the international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States.
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 (US$1,621) to MVR2million (US$130,000) 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 (US$64,850).
Journalists found guilty are required to pay between MVR50,000 (US$3,242) and MVR150,000 (US$9,727), 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. Although whistle-blowers are said to be protected, they are required to prove the truth of their claims in court.
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.