Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan has submitted legislation on behalf of the government to criminalise defamation and expressions contrary to national interest or tenets of Islam.
The defamation and freedom of expression bill – introduced at Tuesday’s sitting of parliament – 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.
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 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.
The People’s Majlis had decriminalised defamation in November 2009 during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
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.
Yameen’s administration has been embroiled in the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal following the release of a damning audit report in February exposing the embezzlement of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned tourism company
The president’s remarks also followed the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party alleging the central bank’s involvement in a US$1.5 billion money laundering operation. The MDP claims to have evidence of Yameen’s involvement in money laundering and terrorist financing.
Yameen’s announcement of plans to criminalise defamation drew stringent criticism from the opposition and NGOs. Prominent journalists meanwhile expressed concern over the negative impact on press freedom.
Speaking to The Maldives Independent today, local human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network’s executive director, Shahinda Ismail, described the government-sponsored legislation as “regressive” and “a continuation of the abuse of legislative powers to derail democracy.”
“The issues mentioned in the bill have already been addressed by the penal code, the Religious Unity Act and broadcasting laws,” she said.
Shahindha stressed that “there is no need for a bill specifically targeting the freedom of expression while legal mechanisms already exist with regards to the matter,”
The bill prescribes penalties from the 1994 Religious Unity Act for expressions contrary to a tenet of Islam.
The media regulatory bodies, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission and Maldives Media Council, would be tasked with taking action against media outlets who violate the law.
The Prosecutor General would meanwhile be authorised to order the police to investigate cases of “illegal” expression. Individuals may also submit such complaints to the police.
The PG office would then file cases with the criminal court and prosecute offenders. The proposed law grants discretion to judges to mete out punishments in consideration of the type of violation.
The bill, however, exempts statements made in the parliament or its committees as well as the cabinet or its committees from prosecution. Expressions made during investigations and court proceedings or at classrooms and educational institutions would also be exempt.
The MDP’s spokesperson, MP Imthiyaz Fahmy, meanwhile told The Maldives Independent that the plans to criminalise defamation is a further sign of the country “going backwards.”
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.”
“President Yameen is pasting a band aid over the mouths of the people to stop them from talking about his thievery. He is threatening his citizens. This is a characteristic of an authoritarian. The MDP is deeply concerned about this,” Imthiyaz said.
Thorig Hamid, programme manager for the local branch of Transparency International, observed that defamation is not a criminal offence in any democratic country “as a matter of principle.”
“We do not support criminalising it at all. At best it should be a civil offence,” he said, warning that it could hinder free speech and undermine press freedom as well as the functioning of civil society organisations.
“When defamation is criminalised, it will be hard for journalists, civil society and political parties to do their part and also to criticize the actions of the government,” Thorig said.
In July last year, The Maldives Independent obtained a copy of freedom of expression legislation drafted by the Attorney General’s Office, which also proposed criminalising expressions contrary to national interest or tenets of Islam.
The freedom of expression bill was among the government’s 207-bill legislative agenda.
In May 2015, 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.