Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan has signaled willingness to amend government-sponsored legislation on criminalising defamation and restricting the constitutional right to freedom of expression amid mounting concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting Tuesday afternoon with the Maldives Media Council, the parliamentary group leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives said the government is willing to address press freedom concerns raised by journalists.
“The bill was not drafted and brought to the Majlis with the intention of obstructing the work of journalists,” he said.
Nihan assured that the MMC and journalists will be consulted when the bill is reviewed at the committee stage. The bill would be withdrawn “if it would seriously obstruct journalists and their work,” he added.
Nihan’s bill 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.
In late March, ten senior journalists said in a statement that the proposed law “will prevent journalists and citizens from speaking out over serious accusations of corruption and the integrity of state officials.”
The move to criminalise defamation comes amid allegations that President Abdulla Yameen, cabinet ministers, and MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties were among the beneficiaries of an unprecedented corruption scandal involving the theft of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned tourism promotion company.
The journalists also warned that the defamation law would also authorise the police “to conduct criminal inquiries against those who criticise, or express such criticism via the news, in the guise of protecting reputation.”
“Such provisions render the bill unconstitutional,” the statement added, urging the government to increase fines for defamation in lieu of jail sentences.
But Nihan stressed yesterday that there is an urgent need for a new defamation law as the civil remedy of a maximum MVR5,000 in damages is insufficient compensation.
“I myself have made defamatory remarks in television appearances and I want to reform,” he said.
The MMC sought a meeting with the majority leader after some 18 journalists were arrested Sunday from a sit-in protest outside the president’s office. They were released 10 hours later.
The journalists voiced concerns over press freedom in the wake of a court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper, the submission of the defamation bill, and the police confirming that The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in August 2014.
A group of journalists also staged a silent protest outside the parliament Monday while voting on the nominees took place, expressing concern that opposition-aligned TV and radio stations will be unfairly targeted by the newly appointed members.
Meanwhile, during a forum held on Monday night by the MMC, a consensus emerged among Maldivian media that the enactment of the defamation law would be the death knell of press freedom in the country.
Journalism as a profession would not exist in the Maldives if the bill is passed into law, Haveeru Editor Moosa Latheef said.
According to the draft legislation, individuals can be prosecuted for defamation if they are unable to prove the truth of an assertion at court in line with standards followed in civil defamation suits.
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.
The People’s Majlis had decriminalised defamation in November 2009 during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
After the parliament decriminalised defamation in 2009 by abolishing provisions in the old penal code, the Maldives had jumped 53 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index and was upgraded by Freedom House from “not free” to “partially free.”