‘Cosmetic’ changes to defamation bill fails to ease concerns

Some journalists join hands to show solidarity during a recent protest against the closure of a local online newspaper. MIHAARU FILE PHOTO

Some journalists join hands to show solidarity during a recent protest against the closure of a local online newspaper. MIHAARU FILE PHOTO

Media and opposition alike appeared to have succeeded in months of efforts after the government withdrew a controversial bill criminalising defamation.

The ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ was submitted by the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Parliamentary Group leader MP Ahmed Nihan in March that sparked a public outcry with local media dubbing the bill as the “death of free media and speech in the Maldives.”

The Villi-Maafannu MP Nihan had told Mihaaru that the government had decided to withdraw the bill and submit a more “media friendly” bill instead.

“I proposed a really strong bill. So instead of chopping it up, I decided to withdraw the bill,” Nihan had said.

Nihan had said the new bill being drafted would enable much more room for freedom of speech and media.

However, the new bill is anything but ‘media friendly’ with defamation still a criminal offence.

The first reading of the bill was held during the parliament sitting on Tuesday.

The original bill, prescribed hefty fines of between MVR50, 000 (US$3,200) and MVR5 million (US$324,000) as penalties for violations, with offenders who fail to pay the court-imposed fine will face a one-year jail term.

The new draft bill has only made ‘cosmetic changes’ reducing the maximum fine from the original MVR5 million to MVR2 million. Failure to pay the fine would lead to a jail term between three to six months.

Home ministry which has been given the authority to penalise media outlets are obligated to file a police complaint for any violation. Police in turn must forward the case to the prosecutor after investigation.

Newspapers and websites that publish “defamatory content” may also have their licenses revoked, while the draft law says 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.

 

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