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Maldives parliament ignores outcry to press ahead with defamation bill

Mohamed Visham
31 July 2016, MVT 12:46
Local journalists pictured during a silent protest held against the defamation bill. MIHAARU PHOTO/MOHAMED SHARUHAAN
Mohamed Visham
31 July 2016, MVT 12:46

The government controlled parliament is set to ignore a public outcry over a move to criminalise defamation with the debate on the controversial bill tabled on the agenda for Monday's sitting.

The government is rushing to pass a revised version of the ‘Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act’ which has sparked public outcry with media and opposition describing the bill as the end of free media and speech in the Maldives.

The parliament would seemingly send the bill for review after the three hour debate on Monday.

The new bill has completely ignored every concern raised by journalists has made its way to the parliament and the government controlled parliament is set to fast track it into law.

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.

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.

To prove whether the comments in an article is considered defamatory is the responsibility of the media that publishes the comments

Failure to contact an individual to obtain a comment to which the news refers to is indefensible in court

Individual journalists are made liable to the news that are published

No chance of appeal until the fine is paid

Jail term for failure to pay the fine

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.

The media has rallied to launch an extensive campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers of the bill.

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