The Maldivian Democratic Party condemns the Government Parliamentary Group’s flagrant subversion of Parliamentary procedure, and absolute disregard for public opinion, in pushing the Defamation Bill through Parliamentary Committee, today.
The MDP strongly believes by expediting the Bill, bypassing all Parliamentary norms and democratic best practices, the Government is expediting the end of freedom of speech, press freedom and democracy in the country.
On August 1, the ruling party submitted, and voted to accept a bill on criminalising defamation and restricting free speech. The Defamation Bill:
• Criminalises “defamatory” speech, remarks, writings, and other actions such as even a gesture.
• 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.
• Politicians, social media commentators and any others become an easy target of the hefty court- imposed penalty of a fine of between rufiyaa 50,000 (US$3,200) and rufiyaa MVR2 million (US$130,000).
• There is no recourse to appeal this fine and;
• if unable to pay the fine, will face a jail term of between three and six months.
• All fines must be paid to the state and not to the defamed individual.
• 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.
• The Bill also gives Government authorities sweeping powers to target journalists and media outlets.
• The Bill does not specify which authority is mandated with monitoring, and it is unclear how much of the fine would proceed to the claimant, and how much to the State.
The Bill has triggered a free speech campaign by local journalists as well as invited a myriad of unprecedented international criticism, for its stifling effect on freedom of expression and media freedom:
• “The defamation bill..risks being, if passed, a serious setback for freedom of speech in the Maldives. It will allow severe penalties to be imposed on those who wish to exercise their democratic rights and freedoms,” read a joint statement issued by the US, UK, EU, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.
• “We urge the government of the Republic of Maldives to uphold democracy, transparency and the rule of law and to address concerns about the effect of the proposed legislation on freedom of expression,” read the statement from Australia and;
• “Canada shares concerns that if passed Defamation Bill would be a serious setback for freedom of speech in Maldives.” tweeted the Canadian High Commissioner.
• Amnesty International called on “the Maldives authorities to scrap the proposed Defamation Bill or to substantially revise it to meet the requirements of international human rights law and standards.”
• “At a time when fundamental civil and political liberties are under stringent restrictions of the State, the proposed defamation bill will be a further step back for press freedom and freedom of speech in the Maldives,” said a Transparency Maldives statement.
• Referencing his support for Article 27 of the Maldivian Constitution (Freedom of Expression), and in support of the local free speech campaign, former President Mohamed Nasheed tweeted that during his tenure, “the MDP Government ended the criminalisation of defamation, to advance freedom of speech and international best practices.”
During debate, Minority Leader Ibrahim M. Solih said this is a “noose around Article 27 of the Constitution,” and with the limitations it imposes on free speech and press freedom, “democracy in the Maldives would be on life support if the bill is passed into law.”
A number of Government MPs also voiced their concerns.
• “Striking a balance between the constitutional rights to free speech and to protect one’s reputation is a delicate task. I don’t believe this bill achieves that,” MP Nasheed, former Information Minister during the final years of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year reign, said.
• MP Ahmed Saleem said “the public should be able to criticise rulers and hold them accountable. This Bill does not allow that.”
• MP Faris Maumoon said the Bill was a “threat to freedom of expression.”
The Government selected a special ad- hoc Committee to vet the Bill, bypassing the Parliamentary Standing Committees. Today, the Government revoked a previous decision taken by the Committee to seek public consultation. The public notice issued for comments has been revoked, and the Government- dominated Committee also decided not to summon further media groups for consultation. Any comments or ammendments received from the public would also be disregarded.
Media groups who were summoned to the Committee, were forcefully critical of the Bill, reiterating that it would mean an end to press freedom in the country:
• “A top state official might violate the law. We must be able to write about that. But the bill does not allow us [media] to do so,” said the Maldives Media Council, citing impositions on press freedom.
• “This Bill would delegate the work of a journalist to that of a librarian. Record- keeping, and filing away,” said Avas.mv
• “This Bill leaves no space for investigative journalism, despite Constitutional protection of confidentiality of sources,” said Mihaaru.
• “If an exemption is not given, this Bill would put an end to the Film industry,” said the Maldives Film Association.
• Only the State Broadcaster – the Public Service Media corporation – and the national Broadcasting Commission – a newly selected group from the President’s own party- defended the Bill, saying “protection against libel and slander must be a deciding factor over press freedom”.
• Disturbingly, the Broadcasting Commission also said, they would “need to end live coverage of Parliamentary debates when the law comes into force, saying Parliamentary debates are not fit for “family sitting rooms.”
However, following an abrupt vote- call, the Committee Chair announced that as the Fiqh Academy- the State’s religious council, recently formed and designed around the Supreme Council of Iran- had declared the Bill to be “Islamic, and in keeping with Islamic values,” there was no need for consultation with anyone else. The Fiqh Academy justified the hefty fines and making defamation a criminal offense, by referencing Saudi Arabian and Sudanese laws.
In doing so, the Government MPs shifted the powers of the Parliament to a small religious group, whose authority and expertise lie outside the scope of this Bill.
Throughout the Parliamentary debate, and vetting at the Committee, the Government resorted, to their oft- repeated theme of using Islam as a means to justify their unconstitutional acts, and their customary tactic of using religion to intimidate voices of dissent by branding them as “irreligious.” The Defamation Bill, was also portrayed as a matter of national security. While the Opposition pointed out that such Bills are becoming archaic in the democratic system, Majority Leader insisted such practices were the norm in Europe and elsewhere.
By revoking a previous vote, without prior notice, in eliminating public consultation and terminating consultation with stakeholders, the Government party showed blatant disregard for Parliamentary Procedure.
These actions, once again, demonstrate the Government- dominated Parliament’s readiness in subverting the will of the people, and in rubber- stamping the heavy handedness of the Executive. These developments are chilling in their implications for freedom of expression, democracy and human rights in the country, and show the Yameen regime is on course to entirely subvert democracy in the Maldives.
“Deprived of popular support, deprived of support from even his own political party, bolstered by only a handful of cronies, we are fearful that there is no action too brazen for this President to cling to power. We are fearful the window of opportunity to revert the course of authoritarianism is shutting down for the Maldivian people. It is simple. Yameen must go,” said MDP Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor.