1 August 2016, Male'; The Government of Maldives rejects the Joint Statement issued on 31 July 2016 by the Embassies of the United States, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the British High Commission, and the Delegation of the EU to the Maldives, concerning the Draft Defamation Bill that is currently debated in the Maldives Parliament.
The Government notes that the Draft Bill on Defamation is still being debated at its second reading at the Parliament. As prescribed in the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament, the Bill, if accepted by the Parliament at this stage, will be sent to a committee of the Parliament for review, revision, and consultation with relevant stakeholders.
During the debate today at the Parliament, the Parliamentary Group Leader of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Ahmed Nihaan Hussain Manik MP said that his Party will work in the spirit of listening to the concerns of media. MP Nihaan also proposed that the Bill be sent to an 11-member Committee, comprising all political parties represented in the Parliament, for further review and to address the specific concerns expressed by the media.
The Government of Maldives wishes to note that the Draft Bill does not seek to criminalise free speech. It instead seeks to provide a layer of protection for those who may fall victim to scurrilous and defamatory articles and to ensure that such comment does not impact upon issues of religious sentiment or national security.
The Government recognises that care must be taken with such matters. As such, the Draft Bill foresees a multi-stage process. According to the Draft Bill, in the first instance, a warning would be given, and that warning would be made public; secondly, the relevant media outlet would be required to apologise and recall the relevant and offending article and produce a statement to that effect.
Where the article is produced repeatedly, that programme/outlet can be suspended for a specified period. It may also be deemed appropriate for a financial penalty to be imposed. It is only after the financial penalty is not paid within the specified timeframe that the matter is referred for police investigation, and thereafter, referral to the Prosecutor General for a decision as to charge.
Upon conviction, a prison sentence up to a maximum of six months may be imposed, which is a penalty significantly lower than in many advanced democracies.
The Joint Statement seeks to advance a notion of freedom of expression that is in fact restricted in four out of the five countries which are signatories to the Statement; these countries have criminalised defamation and have enacted such statutes. Similarly, 23 out of the 28 Member States of the EU also have criminalised defamation. (http://legaldb.freemedia.at/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IPI-OutofBalance-Final-Jan2015.pdf)
The Joint Statement seeks to suggest that the Draft Bill in the Parliament allows severe penalties to be imposed against those who merely wish to exercise their democratic rights and freedoms. The Statement also suggests that the Bill infringes the fundamental protections guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR). Both these allegation are fallacious and ill-informed. In fact Article 19 of ICCPR specifically provides for a regulatory framework on the duties and responsibilities in exercising freedom of expression, and states that, among other things:
“. . . (2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression . . . ; (3) The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”
Further, the European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled that such legislation is not in itself unlawful (see e.g. Eur. Court HR, Castells v. Spain, judgment of 23 April 1992, Series A No. 236). It is therefore wholly incorrect to suggest that such legislation infringes either the UDHR or the ICCPR.
Section 6 of the Draft Bill identifies a framework similar to what is set out in the ICCPR for exercising freedom of expression, which are, for the protection of national security, protection of public order, respect of the rights or reputation of others (anti-defamation) and for limitations on expressions made that are contrary with tenets of Islam. These areas are also reflective of the principles enshrined in Articles 16, 27 and 33 of the Constitution, which guarantees the fundamental rights set out in the Constitution: the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam and the right to protect one’s reputation and good name respectively. The Draft Bill also takes into account defences enunciated in settled law such as whistle-blowing and honest opinion.
The Government of Maldives appreciates the interests that its friends and partners take in the Maldives, and wishes to request on all who wish to issue commentaries on what takes place in the Maldives, to return to facts and exercise objectivity. The Government is concerned that if such commentaries do not reflect all the facts surrounding the issue, it can be a source of misinformation.
The Government also wishes to note the importance of all stakeholders to respect the democratic verdicts of the people of the Maldives that were expressed in democratic processes, that were observed and endorsed by credible international institutions.
The Government, as it has consistently reiterated, welcomes the opportunity to engage with its international partners, however, it does expect those partners to be constructive and responsible in their actions.