The Maldives’ parliament on Tuesday passed a law that criminalizes defamation and allows for jail terms and steep fines for media outlets, journalists and social media users, despite concern it will curb free speech in the country that has lost many democratic freedoms in recent years.
The law puts the burden of proof on defendants and allows for revoking the licenses of media companies convicted of defamation.
Maldivian journalists and opposition politicians, as well as the European Union and the embassies from the U.S., Britain, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, had urged the government not to pass the law.
The government promised to have a multiparty parliamentary committee study the bill and to take suggestions from media and other stakeholders. However the ruling party dominated committee on Monday ignored objections and decided to send the bill back to Parliament for voting.
It passed with a 47-31 vote and now goes to the president for ratification, which is expected soon.
According to the law, media companies and individual bloggers and social media users convicted of criminal defamation can be fined from $1,620 to $130,000. Journalists working for registered media outlets can be fined up to $ 9,730 in addition to the fine imposed on their employer. Failure to pay the fine can result in a jail term of up to six months.
There is no provision to appeal the fines until they are paid, and the law also requires reporters to reveal their sources at times.
Ali Naafiz, assistant editor of the independent Mihaaru newspaper and website, said the passage of the defamation law meant the end of the last remaining rights enjoyed by the citizens. “It will basically silence every dissenting voice,” he said.
Maldives United Opposition, an umbrella of opposition political parties, said the law’s passage is a “clear proof of regression of democracy in Maldives and a step backwards from democratic norms, ”
Maldives, a South Asian archipelago known for its luxury tourist resorts, became a multiparty democracy in 2008 after decades of autocratic rule. Defamation was made a civil offense a year later, one of a number of democratic changes, but the country has lost much of those gains since then.
President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has taken a stranglehold on power since his election in 2013. He is accused of manipulating the judiciary, police and bureaucracy to concentrate power and stifle the opposition.
At least four senior politicians — a former president, a former vice president a former defense minister and a political party leader are among those who have been given lengthy jail terms after trials criticized for a lack of due process.
The government is also accused of failing to investigate the case of a journalist went missing two years ago and is suspected to have been abducted. Also two media outlets have been shut down this year which critics say is the result of government pressure.
Local journalists protest outside the parliament as lawmakers passed the contentious defamation bill on Tuesday. MIHAARU PHOTO/MOHAMED SHARUHAAN