GENEVA (10 August 2016) The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, deplored the adoption on 9 August of the “Protection of Reputation and Good Name and Freedom of Expression Bill” by Parliament in the Maldives, warning that it limits the right to freedom of expression to such a degree that the right itself is in jeopardy.
“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,” said Kaye. “The 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.”
The adopted Bill would criminalise speech deemed to be defamatory, to comment against “any tenet of Islam”, to “threaten national security” or to “contradict general social norms”. Those committing an offence under the bill can face fines and failure to pay the fine will result in jail sentence of three to six months.
Mr. Kaye underlined his concerns on the vague use of religion, social norms and defamation as reasons for punishing expression. “The broad grounds for restrictions in the Bill contradict not only international human rights standards recognised by the Maldives, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but also the Maldives Constitution, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The Bill will have a strong chilling effect on media and civil society, making reporting and criticism truly risky,” the expert stressed.
“The use of religion as a ground for limiting free speech is particularly worrying. International human rights law protects individuals from discrimination and violence based on their religion or belief, but it does not protect from comment or criticism religion or belief as such,” Mr. Kaye noted. “Moreover, limitations on expression based on morals cannot be derived exclusively from a single tradition or religion.”
Concerns were also raised with respect to the extensive restrictions imposed on the media.
“The threat of additional penalties for the media are likely to lead to even greater self-censorship on issues perceived to be sensitive, limiting public debate on issues of public interest and depriving society from accessing important information on sensitive affairs,” said Mr. Kaye.
“I would be eager to engage in discussion with the Maldivian authorities and hope the President will reverse the decision by sending back the bill to Parliament for further review in consultation with independent institutions, journalists, civil society organisations and human rights defenders and bring it in compliance with international human rights standards.”
The concerns of the Special Rapporteur were shared by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, who endorsed this statement and co-signed a letter to the Maldivian authorities detailing their concerns about the legislation on 26 May 2016.