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MPs back repeal of anti-defamation law

The widely-condemned law introduced hefty fines and jail terms for journalists.



A majority of lawmakers backed Monday a bill to repeal the draconian anti-defamation law as pledged by president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

After a debate, MPs voted 48-17 with two abstentions to accept the bill. It was sent to a committee for review before a final vote.

The repeal legislation was submitted in the wake of the joint opposition candidate’s decisive victory over President Abdulla Yameen in September’s election.

Enacted in August 2016, the widely-condemned law criminalised defamation and introduced hefty fines and jail terms for journalists and individuals found guilty of slander. It was used by the broadcasting regulator to slap fines worth MVR3.7 million (US$240,000) on the opposition-aligned Raajje TV, mostly for airing speeches deemed defamatory towards President Yameen.

While civil remedies were kept in place, police were authorised to investigate complaints against individuals and forward cases for prosecution. Failure to pay fines of up to MVR2 million if found guilty could lead to a jail term of three to six months.

During the debate on abolishing the law, most lawmakers said it contravened the constitutional rights to free speech and press freedom.

MP Mohamed Nasheed, a ruling party lawmaker who voted against passing the law in 2016, observed that media outlets would represent a plurality of views in a multi-party democracy. 

“Different outlets might believe in different ideas. To balance that out, we have a state media. The public service broadcaster was formed to not be someone’s diary but to establish a balanced system,” he said.

MP Eva Abdulla accused the outgoing administration of using the law to suppress critical reporting.

“We have seen people exercising free speech being jailed under Yameen. We have seen broadcasters fined to an extent they were unable to work,” she said.

“We have to protect these rights, not only for the people who agree with us or say the things we want to hear. But even for the people who disagree with us, in peaceful political activity— we have to be more vigilant about the protection of their rights. If we can’t protect the rights of the people who disagree with us today, there will be no one to protect my rights tomorrow.”

MP Jaufar Dawood, who submitted the anti-defamation bill on behalf of the government, vehemently defended the law.

“Because we are humans, Allah dignified and honored us. One have honor and dignity, as they are human, as they are Muslim. In the modern democracies that we look up to, they have also protected human dignity against defamation. In every country of the world, journalists are sued for defamation,” he said.

MP Mohamed Waheed, who voted for the law before defecting to the opposition, said MPs were forced to vote against their will.

“When this law was passed from here, there was an atmosphere of coercion, no space was given for it to be done any other way. This law was passed by the person who wanted to do it without any debate, through coercion by threatening MPs who were against the law,” he said.

“This is how the bill became a law. I completely support the motion to repeal this law. This law was passed and enacted in such a repugnant and distasteful way that, I don’t believe there is reason even to debate this.”