Journalists flocked outside the parliament on Tuesday pleading lawmakers to vote against the controversial defamation bill. Most of them were aware their pleas would be futile as the parliamentary committee had already listened to their concerns, rebuffed each and every one of them to send to the parliament floor a draft that contained even tougher penalties.
The outcome was inevitable as the government controlled parliament rubber stamped yet another contentious bill as journalists continued weeks of relentless efforts to curtail the move to quash free media and speech in the Maldives.
“They’ve restricted free speech to kill journalism,” one journalist bemoaned as the parliament passed the bill to send free media and speech in the tiny island nation back to the stone age.
Journalists were undoubtedly disappointed as their pleas fell on deaf ears. But the preordained conclusion was hardly surprising as the government had made it’s intentions quite clear through its mouthpiece lawmakers.
Public outcry over mass government corruption was deafening. Heavy handed efforts to muzzle the media had been in vain. Opposition leaders either jailed or forced into self imposed exile had united to rally international support against the incessant government crackdown on dissent.
“This was a way to stop media from reporting on any government iniquity. In the pretext of protecting defamation, the government has destroyed the constitution to find a way to stop us,” one journalist retorted.
Local online newspaper Sun Online deputy editor and media council member Hussain Hassan believes the bill has pushed local media back by decades.
“Journalists have a responsibility to hold the government accountable. But a right enshrined in the constitution has been infringed by the people entrusted to make the laws,” Hassan noted.
“With this bill, we can no longer write about anyone. We can only right about buildings. But its not the finance ministry building that embezzles tax payers’ money. Rights aren’t infringed by the president’s office. All these are done by people. But they’ve now prevented us from doing that.”
The biggest concern for Mihaaru newspaper’s assistant editor Mohamed Hamdhoon is that journalists would not even be able to voice concerns over the bill once the president signs it into law.
“Journalists have to take responsibility over comments made by someone else. After continuously restricting free media in the Maldives, this bill is a bomb to annihilate the media. We can no longer write anything negative about the government.”
The draconian law does not only threaten journalists but the 47 lawmakers who had voted in favour of the bill, according to editor of Maldives Independent Zaheena Rasheed.
“You reap what you sow. Maldives’ political landscape is extremely turbulent. It can change in an instant. So who will speak for those MPs when the tables are turned? It will be us journalists. But how can we do that if they’ve tied our hands,” Zaheena added.
“Today, lawmakers have conspired to destroy rule of law.”
Despite the major setback, journalists remain undeterred. The current generation of journalists did not struggle to gain media freedom to be dissuaded by a draconian law.
“Nothing good can come out of jailing young journalists. If you antagonize young reporters, the result would be even more bitter,” Hussain warned.
The government controlled 11 member parliamentary committee had completely rebuffed the concerns raised by the media.
The new provisions that were included in the bill were not opened for public review and restricts freedom of expression even further.
The bill now compels journalists to reveal their sources to prove the veracity of their published articles, news reports or comments and allows for media licenses to be cancelled in addition to the criminal liability faced by individual journalists.
The dangerous new provisions greatly hinder the functioning of an independent media devoid of intimidation and is less about providing redress for victims of defamation.