Journalists on Monday gathered near the Parliament to continue the protest against a government move to criminalise defamation before police quickly dispersed the protesters as a divided parliament debated on the contentious bill.
As expected pro-government lawmakers spoke in favour of the ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ despite being labelled by journalists as the death of free media in the island nation.
Opposition parliamentarians however, lambasted the bill insisting that it contradicts and violates several rights enshrined in the constitution.
“The constitution was drafted with the hard work of a lot of people. If we don’t like the constitution, we should amend the Articles that we feel are wrong,” government aligned Jumhoory Party lawmaker Faisal Naseem said.
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.
- 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
Respected ruling party lawmaker Mohamed Nasheed, the only government MP who spoke against bill said media outlets would be hard-pressed to cover live events as they could be penalised over a speech during a political gathering.
According to the new draft bill, the media must report objectively on speeches and addresses with comments from all relevant parties. Failure to contact an individual to obtain a comment to which the news refers to is indefensible in court.
The particular clause would prove a major challenge for television and radio stations during live broadcasts. For example, if a political gathering is broadcast live, the media outlet could be made accountable for any individual comments or speeches given during the rally.
In addition to broadcast media, the clause could make life difficult for bringing live updates on online newspapers and social media.
The general public could also face heavy penalties for simply airing a personal opinion on any social networking site as social media has been included with media outlets, websites and blogs in the bill.
This means that posting a comment on Facebook or Twitter could be slapped with a hefty fine or even jail term.
The public is in even greater danger from the bill than media outlets. As media outlets found in violation of the bill would first face a civil lawsuit while cases against private individuals would be directly filed with the police.
Police then must investigate the case and has the authority to seek criminal charges.
The government controlled parliament is expected to accept the bill and forward it for committee review.
Three Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) parliamentarians including Ungoofaaru MP Jaufar Dawood who submitted the revised ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ met member of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) to hear the growing concerns over the threat it poses to free media in the archipelago.
During the sit-down, the lawmakers had assured that every concern raised will be considered and would offer a chance for the media council to be heard during the parliamentary committee review of the bill, MMC said.