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Maldives MPs vote to restrict free speech

Some 47 MPs approved today a bill that imposes severe restrictions on free speech and press freedom.



The People’s Majlis approved Tuesday a bill imposing severe restrictions on free speech and press freedom despite widespread outrage and concern.

Some 47 MPs of the 78 present voted in favour, 31 voted No.

The bill, which recriminalizes defamation and grants regulators authority to shutter media outlets, will come into effect as soon as the president ratifies it.

Three MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives, and one from ruling coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance voted to reject the bill. They are Faris Maumoon, Mohamed Musthafa, Mohamed Nasheed and Hussain Areef.

Three other ruling party MPs – Mohamed Ameeth, Ahmed ‘Red Wave’ Saleem, and Nazim Rashad – did not attend the vote.

MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, who was expelled from the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, voted for the bill.

The bill was approved by a ruling party dominated committee on Tuesday night, and put up for a vote this morning. Opposition MPs said they were not given adequate time to propose amendments or review the draft bill. They had agreed not to disrupt parliamentary proceedings today, in the hopes that some pro-government MPs would vote to reject the bill.

PPM MPs defended the bill on religious grounds, claiming protecting one’s good name was an Islamic tenet and accusing journalists of defaming politicians.

MP Jameel Usman said the bill will professionalise journalism and delineate “proper” limits for the press, while MP Riyaz Rasheed said the bill would heal “the Maldives’ torn social fabric.”

“Today will go down in Maldivian history as another dark day, one that saw the slaughter of the constitution, and the deprivation of the people’s basic freedoms,” MDP MP Mariya Didi said.

Politicians must face public scrutiny, minority leader Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Mohamed Solih stressed, adding: “I will reiterate, freedom of expression is the basis of democracy. This bill will destroy that foundation.”

Others accused President Abdulla Yameen of seeking to stifle criticism at a time that he stands accused of massive embezzlement and human rights violations.

Faris, the son of PPM leader and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was not allowed to speak during the debate. Gayoom, half-brother to Yameen, had urged MPs to reject the bill.

MP Gasim Ibrahim, who leads the Jumhooree Party, abruptly left the Maldives for Thailand on Monday, according to local media. He had previously told concerned journalists that the bill opens the door for corruption.

It was introduced to the parliament 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 denied involvement in the historic scandal.

Key provisions include a fine between MVR25,000 (US$1,621) to MVR2million (US$130,000) for slander and remarks and content that threaten national security and breach social norms. If a person found guilty by the court is not able to pay the fine, he or she could be jailed for up to six months.

Journalists face fines between MVR50,000 (US$3,242) and MVR150,00 (US$9,727).

Verdicts can only be appealed once the fine is paid to the state.

Media regulators are meanwhile authorised to suspend licenses or interrupt live coverage of events by media outlets accused of slander.

A previous version of the bill barred journalists from publishing articles if they are not able to obtain a response from individuals accused of wrongdoing, but the new bill allows publication if reporters can prove they put in enough effort to seek a response.