Proposed Maldives defamation bill threatens freedom of speech, critics warn

Colombo, Sri Lanka, Colombo, Western Province, Sri Lanka Published: Aug 01, 2016, 12:04 PM(IST)

The US led calls for President Yameen, pictured, to withdraw the bill which independent media institutions fear could be used to stifle freedom of speech on the islands. (Source: Creative commons) Photograph:( Others )

Western nations warned Monday that a new defamation bill could severely undermine freedom of speech in the Maldives, as they accused President Abdulla Yameen of eroding democracy on the honeymoon islands.

The United States led calls on Yameen to withdraw the bill that is being discussed in parliament this week, saying it gave authorities powers to impose severe penalties on people seeking to exercise basic human rights. "The defamation bill that has been introduced in the Maldivian parliament risks being, if passed, a serious setback for freedom of speech in the Maldives," the US embassy said in a statement.

"It will allow severe penalties to be imposed on those who wish to exercise their democratic rights and freedoms, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

The strongly-worded missive was supported by the Sri Lanka-based diplomatic missions of Britain, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and the European Union, which have responsibility for the Maldives. The statement also expressed "concern about the erosion of fundamental freedoms and the institutions of democracy, including freedom of assembly and press" under Yameen, who came to power in 2013.

"We urge President Yameen to reverse the backsliding of the past many months and return to the path of democracy, transparency, and rule of law -– for the well-being and prosperity of all of the people in the Maldives," it added.

Maldivian police arrested 16 journalists in April for protesting against the bill, which seeks to criminalise defamation and proposes heavy fines and jail terms for offenders.

Independent media institutions fear it could be used to stifle freedom of speech on the islands, whose pristine seas and white sandy beaches are a popular draw for wealthy Western tourists. The Indian Ocean archipelago adopted multiparty democracy in 2008 after decades of autocratic rule.

But it has been gripped by turmoil since its first democratically-elected leader Mohamed Nasheed was toppled in 2012. Nasheed, whose jailing last year on terror charges has been widely criticised by the West, has since secured political asylum in Britain after travelling there for medical treatment while on prison leave.

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