In a surprising turn of events, Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) chief Mohamed Shaheeb on Wednesday in large parts backed the contentious defamation bill after downplaying the concerns flagged by journalists and media outlets in the archipelago.
Shaheeb told the parliamentary committee reviewing the ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ that the bill was a much needed legislation for the Maldives.
Contrary to other media journalists Shaheeb had not even urged to reduce the fine deemed excessive by opponents of the bill.
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.
Human rights groups and media organisations have expressed concern that the bill could destroy freedom of speech and media in the island nation.
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
Shaheeb, however, insisted that television and radio stations must not be allowed to broadcast libel of any kind.
"I don't believe this bill would be the end of free media. I think this will go a long way to protecting human dignity," the experienced journalist said.
He labelled journalism more dangerous than a "gun" and added that the bill would ensure more responsible news reporting in the Maldives.
The parliamentary committee is looking to complete the review before August 25, but has decided to consult several state and independent institutions.
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).
The committee earlier Wednesday consulted the Maldives Media Council where members also shared concerns over the contentious bill.