Journalists in the tiny island nation, for the first time in recent history had put up a united front against a bill criminalizing defamation.
After weeks of protests and voicing concerns had appeared to have paid dividends as the government was seemingly forced to withdraw the bill dubbed as the death of free media and speech in the archipelago.
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.
But the relief has been short-lived as the ‘dangerous’ bill has made a return to the parliament with ‘cosmetic’ changes.
Much to the dismay of the media, the so called ‘media friendly bill’ as touted by MP Nihan when he withdrew his ‘stronger’ version of the bill has indirectly criminalised defamation.
Anyone found guilty of expressing an opinion that is deemed as a threat to national security, or against societal norms or directly and indirectly defames another, faces a hefty fine between MVR50,000 and MVR2 million.
Failure to pay the fine would result in a jail term between three to six months.
- To prove whether the comments of a third party is considered defamatory is the responsibility of the media that publishes the comments
- Failure to contact an individual to obtain a comment to which the news refers to is indefensible in court
- Individual journalists are made liable to the news that are published
- No chance of appeal until the fine is paid
- Jail term for failure to pay the fine
As the government looks to push the bill through the parliament on Monday, local media is under a dark cloud of uncertainty and fear.
Opposition aligned Raajje TV COO Hussain Fiyaz Moosa described the bill as a deliberate move orchestrated by the government to destroy free media in the Maldives.
Fiyaz believes that the government has planned to leash journalists and silence the media.
Every media outlet would now succumb to the control of the government, Fiyaz warned.
“We will no longer be able to publish anything related to a third party. That is ridiculous and not seen anywhere else in the world,” he stressed.
Government aligned V Media news director Imad Latheef agreed with Fiyaz. Rather than protecting people from defamation, the bill has looked to muzzle opposition and critics, he added.
“This bill is completely alien to the concept of democracy,” Imad bemoaned.
“If this bill becomes law, it will shake Maldives’ media down to its very core.”
The team of critical online newspaper CNM, which was recently forced to shut down operations after bringing to light major government corruption scandals said the bill would bring an end to the already constricted free media in the Maldives.
The government would no longer need an ‘excuse’ to shut down media outlets, the CNM team said.
“This is designed to kill free media. There will not be journalism in the Maldives after this bill becomes law,” Abdulla Haseen who was the assistant editor at CNM insisted.
The primary grievance of all journalists is that the government had completely ignored every concern raised earlier, after the original bill was proposed to the parliament.
Sun Media Group’s chief editor Ahmed Zahir said the concerns voiced by journalists during the numerous sit-downs with the Attorney General and other key officials have fallen on deaf ears.
Reiterating that no country can criminalise defamation, Zahir pointed out that the amendments proposed by the media council to the original bill would have proved beneficial to all concerned.
“So I still urge the government to reconsider. Otherwise this bill will prove to be a major obstacle to press freedom in the Maldives,” Zahir lamented.
Pro-government DhiTV CEO Adam Midhath also backed Zahir’s stand noting that the government had not paid any heed to media concerns.
Despite minor changes, the “cosmetic” tweaks would not be enough to ensure a safe environment for media personnel, he said.
“These are ridiculous fines. All this would hinder journalism,” Midhath added.
Mihaaru editor Ismail Naseer insisted that the bill would leave no chance for journalists to prove their innocence and expressed immense concern that the already “shady” judiciary would have the final say to seal the fate of reporters.
“Defamation charges can be filed for anything now. For example, even for the way the news is interpreted. There are so many absurd clauses in this bill. When I look at this bill, I realize that this has not been designed to protect people against defamation. This whole thing appears to be a pretext to prevent journalists from reporting and people from speaking out against the government,” Naseer said.
“This is not acceptable. This is not something anyone can digest at this day in age. The whole country is being taken backwards. If this bill is passed, I believe that it would be the most inhumane act we’ve witnessed in recent history.”
Journalists and opposition alike are asking one question. Why is the government rushing to pass a defamation bill when mass embezzlement and corruption are coming to light on nearly a daily basis.
Once the bill is passed into law by the government controlled parliament, exercising the right to freedom of expression and media will be declared as a crime.