Maldives media regulator on Wednesday shared the main concerns over the controversial defamation bill with the parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the bill.
Maldives Media Council (MMC) members insisted that the bill would seriously undermine the constitutional right to free speech in the island nation and destroy any chance of establishing a free media in the Maldives.
Media council president Mohamed Asif urged the 11 member committee with overwhelming government majority to consider major amendments to the bill pointing out the existing mechanism to regulate media overseen by the council.
While supporting the move to stop slander and libel, Asif said the state must look to train journalists before penalising them.
"No one is doing anything to develop journalists. Nothing has been allocated from the state budget towards that. So if we want to penalise journalists, then we must first train them," he exclaimed.
After weeks of protests and voicing concerns had appeared to have paid dividends as the government was seemingly forced to withdraw the bill dubbed as the death of free media and speech in the archipelago in June.
However, 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.
To prove whether the comments of a third party is considered defamatory is the responsibility of the media that publishes the comments
Failure to contact an individual to obtain a comment to whom the news refers to is indefensible in court
Journalists are made personally liable to the news that are published
No chance of appeal until the fine is paid
Jail term for failure to pay the fine
Asif noted that the leeway in the new bill was not enough to ease concerns pointing out that the bill prevents an appeal until the fine is paid.
Council member and award winning journalist Ahmed Hamdhoon said the bill would completely prevent media outlets from objective news reporting.
"If one can seek protection from defamation then journalists and the media must be afforded the opportunity to defend themselves," Hamdhoon stressed.
Council member Ahmed Mahir said as the bill obligates reporters to obtain comments from both sides, it would hinder the immediate reporting of the news.
"If one declines to comment, then journalists won't be able to even report the news," Amir explained.
Hamdhoon also argued that the bill prevents media from bringing to light transgressions committed by individuals.
"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," Hamdhoon lamented.
The council members also pleaded the committee to significantly reduce the fine proposing a figure not more than the annual salary of a civil servant.
"Now the fine for defamation is MVR5,000. We've no qualms about raising the fine. But the figure in the bill is ridiculous. It must be far less than that," Hamdhoon said.
Members also noted that present draft was too vague making it easy for anyone to be made liable for defamation and urged the committee to heed the concerns before the bill is sent back to the parliament for a vote.
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.
The parliamentary committee is looking to complete the review before August 25, but has decided to consult several state and independent institutions.
In addition to the media council, the committee has decided to summon the main registered media outlets, broadcasting commission, Islamic University, Fiqh Academy, National University, Film Association, Human Rights Commission, Lawyers Association, Police, Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF), Attorney General and the Prosecutor General (PG).