Freedom of expression and media independence take another blow in the Maldives as the government brings controversial Defamation Act penalties into effect.

Earlier this year the Maldives’ parliament passed a law criminalising defamation, giving regulators the authority to revoke broadcast licenses, shutter media outlets and the ability to interrupt broadcasts.

The Act, which gives the country’s Broadcasting Commission authority to take action against media organisations and individual reporters, has been widely condemned by human rights and advocacy groups as well as the United Nations and the United States.

As is typical with such laws, it is limited in its specificity, using vague and sweeping terminology to describe when it can be imposed. According the Maldives Independent, the act criminalises speech or content on four grounds; “if found to be either defamatory or anti-Islamic, or for breaches of social norms or national security.” The law also requires live broadcasts to be stopped if any content is deemed to be slanderous without offering details as to what constitutes such content.

Now, three months after the bill was passed, the steep financial cost of the act’s penalties has come to light. Media companies who violate the law will be fined between MVR 50,000 ($3250) and MVR 2Million ($130,000) whilst journalists could pay between MVR 50,000 and MVR 150,000 ($9,753).

The fines, according to Mihaaru (one of the archipelago’s few independent news sources), will rise according to the number of times a company or individual is deemed to break the Defamation Act. Failure to pay the fine could lead to a suspended licence for media outlets or a six month jail sentence for those directly accused.

The law has been heavily criticised as clearly curtailing freedom of speech in the Maldives, not least because of its vague notions as to what constitutes a defamatory or slanderous statement. This, it is feared, will contribute to growing self-censorship among journalists as they attempt to avoid lawsuits.

Some stations, such as Sangu TV, have already said that their editors are on guard, fearful that even coverage of opposition-led protests may lead to repercussions.

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, said in August that “Criminalising speech on such vague and broad grounds as set out in the Bill is a direct attack on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the Maldives,” and that “freedom of expression is a fundamental right and any restrictions on it must be a narrowly and objectively defined, not a matter of common routine.”

Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director, South Asia Regional Office said: “The new defamation bill is another attack on free media by the Maldivian authorities. Defamation should never be criminalised – this bill gives the authorities sweeping powers to fine and imprison journalists, or even to shut down whole outlets. We urge the authorities to scrap or substantially amend this flawed piece of legislation as soon as possible.”

The Public Media Alliance will continue to follow developments in the Maldives and advocate for a media system that allows for free and independent media that can report without fear of arbitrary penalties or detention.

Header image: Malé, capital of the Maldives. Credits: Warrenski/Creative Commons