The government on Monday moved quickly reject international criticism over the controversial defamation bill insisting that it was not designed to criminalise defamation in the archipelago.
A day before the government controlled parliament debated 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.
In response, the Maldives foreign ministry in a statement defended the bill by stressing that it does not seek to criminalise free speech, but instead seeks to protect victims of scurrilous and defamatory articles and to ensure that such comment does not impact upon issues of religious sentiment or national security.
The original bill which was withdrawn after a public outcry, prescribed hefty fines of between MVR50, 000 (US$3,200) and MVR5 million (US$324,000) as penalties for violations, with offenders who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.
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.
However, the foreign ministry argued that the bill foresees a multi-stage process.
"... in the first instance, a warning would be given, and that warning would be made public; secondly, the relevant media outlet would be required to apologise and recall the relevant and offending article and produce a statement to that effect," the ministry said.
"Where the article is produced repeatedly, that programme/outlet can be suspended for a specified period. It may also be deemed appropriate for a financial penalty to be imposed. It is only after the financial penalty is not paid within the specified timeframe that the matter is referred for police investigation, and thereafter, referral to the Prosecutor General for a decision as to charge."
The statement also noted that the maximum prison sentence of six months was a penalty significantly lower than in many advanced democracies.
The Ministry pointed out that the allegations that the bill violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are "fallacious and ill-informed."
"The Government of Maldives appreciates the interests that its friends and partners take in the Maldives, and wishes to request on all who wish to issue commentaries on what takes place in the Maldives, to return to facts and exercise objectivity."
"The Government is concerned that if such commentaries do not reflect all the facts surrounding the issue, it can be a source of misinformation."
Hours before the statement the government controlled parliament accepted the controversial defamation bill with 38 MPs voting in favour.
The bill will now be reviewed by the 11 member committee which also has overwhelming government majority before it goes back to the parliament floor.
During the debate opposition parliamentarians lambasted the bill insisting that it contradicts and violates several rights enshrined in the constitution.
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.
The media has rallied to launch an extensive campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers of the bill.
Pro-government lawmakers had assured the media raised will be considered and would offer a chance for the media council to be heard during the parliamentary committee review.