The European Union (EU) jointly with five nations Sunday echoed calls against the Maldives government's push to criminalise defamation and urged president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to return to the path of democracy and rule of law.
A day before the government controlled parliament is set to debate on the controversial revised ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’, the Embassies of the United States, Norway, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom; and the EU accredited to the Maldives in a joint press release echoed concern about the erosion of fundamental freedoms and the institutions of democracy, including freedom of assembly and press.
"The defamation bill that has been introduced in the Maldivian parliament risks being, if passed, a serious setback for freedom of speech in the Maldives," the statement read.
Media and opposition alike had appeared to have succeeded in months of efforts after the government withdrew the original bill criminalising defamation.
But the new bill which has completely ignored every concern raised by journalists has made its way to the parliament and the government controlled parliament has tabled the debate for Monday’s sitting.
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.
The statement noted that the bill allows severe penalties to be imposed on those who wish to exercise their democratic rights and freedoms, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"We express our support for all Maldivians struggling to preserve their hard won democratic institutions and rights," the joint press release said.
"We urge President Yameen to reverse the backsliding of the past many months and return to the path of democracy, transparency, and rule of law – for the well-being and prosperity of all of the people in the Maldives."
Human rights groups and media organisations have expressed concern that the bill is being proposed at a time when large-scale corruption allegations against senior government officials are being investigated, so as to silence media exposure of such allegations.
Three Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) parliamentarians including Ungoofaaru MP Jaufar Dawood who submitted the revised ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ meanwhile 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.
The media has rallied to launch an extensive campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers of the bill.