MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives have proposed tougher restrictions on the press in a revised version of a controversial bill seeking to recriminalize defamation, disregarding a ground swell of opposition from journalists, human rights groups and the international community.
The parliament is now set to vote on the bill on Tuesday.
The bill, which sets hefty fines and a jail term of up to six months for individuals who are unable to pay the fine, now grants regulators the authority to interrupt live coverage or suspend licenses of media outlets if it receives complaints of slander.
It will come into effect upon ratification by the president, and not within the three months proposed earlier.
Seven out of 11 MPs in the select committee to research the bill voted to approve it on Monday.
It is likely to pass on the People’s Majlis floor as the PPM and its ally, the Maldives Development Alliance, hold 53 seats in the 85-member house.
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the leader of PPM and half-brother to current President Abdulla Yameen, has urged MPs to reject the bill. The two brothers are now engaged in a bitter struggle for the control of the ruling party.
A handful of MPs, including Gayoom’s son Faris Maumoon, have said they will vote No.
According to leaked text conversations between Gayoom, Yameen and MPs, the former president on Sunday appealed to lawmakers saying the bill was anti-Islamic and violated the party’s charter.
“Human dignity is more important to the Maldives than western democracy,” Yameen said in response.
Opposition aligned Raajje TV has reported that MP Hussain Manik Dhon Manik, who is currently in Saudi Arabia on the lesser pilgrimage, has been ordered to return for the vote.
MP Mohamed Musthafa was meanwhile removed from the parliamentary group’s instant messaging group on Viber on Saturday, on the grounds that he was leaking conversations to the media. He subsequently accused Yameen of authoritarianism.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has vowed to fight the bill “until the last minute,” and issued a three-line whip against the bill.
MP Gasim Ibrahim, who leads the Jumhooree Party, has abruptly left the Maldives for Thailand tonight, according to newspaper Mihaaru. He had previously told concerned journalists that the bill opens the door for corruption.
“I will press red,” he had said at the time.
The MDP holds 22 seats while JP holds eight seats.
The defamation bill was introduced soon after the release of an audit report that revealed the theft of at least US$80million from state coffers by senior government officials.
Yameen has categorically denied involvement in the scandal, claiming his former deputy Ahmed Adeeb was to blame. The former vice president is now serving a 33-year sentence on corruption and terror charges.
The government has defended the bill on religious grounds, claiming protecting one’s reputation is an Islamic tenet.
The committee researching the bill had invited members of the public to comment last week, but abruptly scrapped the invitation on Friday. MPs reportedly said they do not have to consult with the public on religious matters.
New defences for journalists in the revised bill include revealing sources “confidentially,” and publishing articles after making “adequate efforts” to seek a response from the accused. The previous version prohibited news articles if journalists are unable to obtain a response from those accused of wrongdoing.
MPs also revised the lower cap on fines from MVR50,000 (US$3,242) to MVR25,000 (US$1,621) on Monday. The upper cap for members of the public and for media outlets remains at MVR2million (US$130,000). All fines are to be paid to the state, and not the defamed person.
The fine for individual journalists was reduced from MVR2million to between MVR50,000 and MVR150,000 (US$9,727), but continues to place the burden of proof on journalists.
The sentence can only be appealed after the fine is paid.
Filmmakers and writers will be protected if their work contains a disclaimer, but the bill criminalises defamatory content posted online and content that threatens national security and violates “societal norms.”
Media outlets have now dubbed the draft legislation as the bill on restricting free speech. A group of journalists have also launched a campaign against the bill, called in defence of 27, in reference to Article 27 of the constitution that guarantees freedom of speech.
The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway issued a statement last week calling the defamation bill a serious set back for freedom of speech. Canada and Australia also joined in the chorus of concern.
The foreign ministry said the statement was “fallacious and ill-informed,” arguing several signatories to the statement and a majority of EU member states have criminalized defamation.