Pro-govt party leader ‘flees’ ahead of defamation vote

Pro-government Jumhoory Party lawmakers pictured during a sit-down with the journalists leading the campaign against the defamation bill last week. MIHAARU PHOTO/ALI NAAFIZ

Pro-government Jumhoory Party lawmakers pictured during a sit-down with the journalists leading the campaign against the defamation bill last week. MIHAARU PHOTO/ALI NAAFIZ

After denouncing the controversial defamation bill and promising to vote against it in parliament, government aligned Jumhoory Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim left the country on a private visit to Thailand on the eve of the vote.

Mihaaru understands Gasim left saying that he has to be at the side of a sick family member.

The business tycoon during a sit-down with journalists leading the campaign against the government move to criminalise defamation last week, had said the bill was in direct contradiction with the constitution.

Flanked by some of the JP lawmakers, Gasim said the bill would seriously constrict freedom of expression in the archipelago.

“This would be a great a crime against the people,” the Maamigili MP had said.

Gasim insisted that he would not hesitate to issue a three-line whip against the bill if it does not undergo major revisions during the committee stage.

“I will definitely press red [No], he assured.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee has completely rebuffed concerns over the government orchestrated push to criminalise defamation and has alarmingly included even more severe penalties to the defamation bill.

The 11 member committee had heard views of the main media groups and state institutions, but late Monday ignored concerns to pass a new draft with even tougher restrictions on media and free speech.

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.

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 new draft would also see the bill if passed by the parliament will become law as soon as it is ratified by the president.

The parliament has tabled the bill on the agenda for Tuesday’s sitting and is expected to vote in the afternoon.

Main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentary group meanwhile has issued a three line whip against the bill.

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