Maldives criminalises defamation to quash free media, speech

Protesters gathered outside the parliament as lawmakers voted to pass the defamation bill on Tuesday. MIHAARU PHOTO/NISHAN ALI

Protesters gathered outside the parliament as lawmakers voted to pass the defamation bill on Tuesday. MIHAARU PHOTO/NISHAN ALI

The government controlled parliament on Tuesday passed the contentious defamation bill to deliver a major blow to media and free speech in the Maldives.

The Bill has triggered a free speech campaign by local journalists as well as attracted unprecedented international criticism, for its stifling effect on freedom of expression and media freedom in the tiny island nation.

However, the bill was passed with 47 lawmakers voting in favour while 31 MPs opposed.

The bill was sent to the parliament floor after the 11 member committee tasked with its review completely rebuffed concerns over the government orchestrated push to criminalise defamation and had included even more severe penalties to the defamation bill.

Media groups who were summoned to the Committee, had been forcefully critical of the Bill, reiterating that it would mean an end to press freedom in the country.

However, the new draft proposed by government lawmaker Ali Arif had failed to heed any concerns raised during the multiple sit-downs.

The most glaring concern overlooked by the government controlled committee was to maintain the hefty court- imposed penalty of a fine of between MVR50,000 (US$3,200) and MVR2 million (US$130,000).

  • Criminalises “defamatory” speech, remarks, writings, and other actions such as even a gesture or a sound.
  • In also targeting any actions against “any tenet of Islam” any actions that “threaten national security” or “contradict general social norms,” the Bill is vaguely formulated to hit a wide target.
  • Court- imposed penalty of a fine of between rufiyaa 50,000 (US$3,200) and rufiyaa MVR2 million (US$130,000).
  • Individual journalists are made liable with a fine between MVR50,000 and MVR150,000
  • There is no recourse to appeal this fine.
  • if unable to pay the fine, will face a jail term of between three and six months.
  • Newspapers and websites, which publish “defamatory” comments, could also have their licenses revoked.
  • Burden of proof is laid on the media source, rather than on the claimant.
  • Prevents journalists from reporting allegations if the accused refuses to comment, preventing coverage of speeches at political rallies.
  • Gives Government authorities sweeping powers to target journalists and media outlets.
  • Unclear how much of the fine would proceed to the claimant, and how much to the State.
  • Claimants have the right to demand media outlets to immediately stop live feeds.
  • Compels journalists to disclose an information source.
  • Will become law from the date it is ratified by the president.

A dangerous new clause would also lead to newspapers and websites, which publish “defamatory” comments having their licenses revoked.

Some member of the parliamentary committee reviewing the defamation bill pictured during the sit-down on Monday. MIHAARU PHOTO/MOHAMED SHARUHAAN

Some member of the parliamentary committee reviewing the defamation bill pictured during the sit-down on Monday. MIHAARU PHOTO/MOHAMED SHARUHAAN

Individual journalists are made liable with a fine between MVR50,000 and MVR150,000 while the appeal process is denied until the fine is paid.

Despite concerns, individual journalists also face between three to six months in prison for failure to pay the fine.

The new draft would also force journalists to disclose an information source, which is a right enshrined in Article 28 of the constitution, although the draft obligates the parent state institution to treat the source with discretion.

In addition the bill criminalises “defamatory” speech, remarks, writings, and other actions such as even a gesture or a sound.

Journalists and media outlets are made liable to the defamatory content that is published or aired.

Claimants have also been given the right to demand media outlets to immediately stop live feeds published or broadcast. The new live feed clause obligates media outlets to obey an order by regulators to immediately cut off live feeds following a complaint of defamatory content by a claimant.

The bill will become law as soon as it is ratified by the president.

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