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Maldives: Draft Law Would Criminalize Defamation

(Mar. 29, 2016) On March 22, 2016, the government of the Maldives submitted draft legislation to the parliament that would criminalize defamation. Even before the formal introduction of the draft law, the political opposition and journalists protested the proposal as a restriction on freedom of speech.  The Bill on Defamation and Freedom of Speech, written by Ahmed Nihan Hussein Manik on behalf of the government, covers comments that defame individuals, anti-Islamic rhetoric, and statements considered threatening to national security.  (Ali Naafiz & Mohamend Yameen, Maldives Govt Seeks to Criminalise Defamation, Raise Fine up to MVR5 Mln, HAVEERU (Mar. 22, 2016); Mohamed Visham & Ahmed Hamdhoon, Maldives’ Media Freedom Under Threat as Pres Aims to Criminalise Defamation, HAVEERU (Feb. 18, 2016).)

Speaking about the draft legislation before its submission to the legislature, Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom argued that it was necessary to put some limits on fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. (Visham & Hamdhoon, supra.)

Defamation of individuals would include statements through speech, drawing, writing, or a sign, so long as the idea expressed could damage someone’s “reputation, dignity and self-esteem.”  The defendant accused of defamation would have to prove the truth of the statement made in order to escape punishment.  (Naafiz & Yameen, supra.)

Defamation in the form of anti-Islamic rhetoric would include both statements directly against religious principles and comments that may be a threat to the religious unity of the Maldives.  The draft law would also make speaking against societal values and norms an offense.  (Id.)

Statements considered threats to national security include any expression designed to harm the sovereignty and integrity of the state, as well as inciting violence against an individual or encouraging vandalizing personal or public property.  (Id.)

Exemptions to these proposed provisions would be granted for statements made in legislative committees or in general sessions of the parliament; in cabinet meetings; during legal proceedings; during interrogations, sermons, and lectures; and by educators.  (Id.)

Punishment

A fine of MVR50,000 to MVR5 million (about US$3,280-328,000) would be the punishment for anyone, including media businesses, convicted of any form of defamation.  (Id.)  Gayoom has said that the extent of the fine imposed would depend on “aspects such [as] the stature of the defamed person.” (Ali Naafiz, Maldives Pres Confirms Plan to Criminalise Defamation, Ramp up Fine, HAVEERU (Feb. 23, 2016).)  Should someone found guilty and made subject to such a fine not pay it, the sentence would become one year of imprisonment.  (Naafiz & Yameen, supra.)

While at one time defamation was a criminal offense, since November 23, 2009, it has not been included in the Penal Code, and defamation is at present a civil infraction, subject to a fine of only MVR5,000. (Id.; Penal Code (Sept. 2, 2004, as amended) Maldives government website; Defamation Laws in Maldives, Kelly Warner Internet Law website (last visited Mar. 22, 2016).)

Reaction to the Draft Legislation

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and a number of journalists have severely criticized the proposed law as a move to restrict the public’s ability to express criticism of the regime, just as the administration is facing allegations of various forms of corruption, including embezzlement, the use of public funds for unlawful surveillance of political opponents, and improper payments to members of the judiciary.  (Naafiz & Yameen, supra.)

Ahmed Zahir, the chief editor of the e-newspaper Sun Online, stated that defamation should not be a crime “in the civilized world” and added “[t]here’s actually no way to stop people speaking out on social media.  If anyone violates the right to freedom of expression we must find a way to resolve it without resorting to filing criminal charges.”  (Visham & Hamdhoon, supra.)

Hussain Fiyaz Moosa of Raajje TV, a broadcast service aligned with the political opposition, criticized the proposal stating, “[t]his is intimidation. This [is] a move that can take media back to how it was before. Media is the only thing that is even remotely independent in this country now. So the government is to put out the only hope we have.”  (Id.)

Restrictions on freedom of speech in the Maldives have been a concern of outside observers of the country for a number of years.  In a report covering 2014, the U.S. State Department noted attempts by the courts to limit free speech and described them as one of the “most significant human rights issues” in the country.  (Maldives: Executive Summary, COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS 2014.)