11 August 2016, Male'; President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has today ratified the ‘Protection of Reputation and Freedom of Expression’ bill, which was passed by the Parliament on 9th August 2016. Protection of Reputation and Freedom of Expression Act aims at preventing malicious defamation and protecting the reputation of individuals. The Maldives Constitution of 2008 sets out an expanded Bill of Rights, including freedom of expression (article 27) and a right to reputation and good name (article 33), and freedom of media (article 28). At the same time, the Constitution also recognises in Article 16, on the need to regulate, by a legislation of the Parliament, on how the rights can be exercised. The Protection of Reputation and Freedom of Expression Act provides the required legal framework envisioned in Article 16 of the Constitution.
The Act, for the first time in the Maldives, creates the legal mechanism to protect the reputations of individuals against injury, including by tending to lower the esteem in which they are held within the community, by exposing them to public ridicule or hatred, or by causing them to be shunned or avoided, through false allegations that can cause the victims serious emotional, personal, and professional harm. Persons and organizations that make false and malicious attacks will be made accountable for their actions. The Act seeks to provide a layer of protection for those who may fall victim to scurrilous and defamatory attacks.
The Government recognises the need to strike a fine balance between freedom of expression and the duty to respect the dignities and reputations of individuals. The legislation sets out a mechanism for imposing a financial penalty for the offender. 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 of up to a maximum of six months may be imposed, which is a penalty significantly lower than in many advanced democracies, a number of which have criminalised defamation and have enacted such statutes. For instance, 23 out of the 28 Member States of the EU also have criminalised defamation.
The need for such a legislation, such as the Protection of Reputation and Freedom of Expression Act is greater in a small society such as the Maldives, where the average population size of an island is just over 500 people, where there is universal coverage of mobile phones and televisions, where electronic information dissemination in real time is as fast as anywhere in the world, and where a culture of exercising the freedom of expression with responsibility is still at a formative stage. The new law thus, reflects international best practice as set out in landmark international instruments, such as Article 19 of the ICCPR, which calls for providing a regulatory framework on the duties and responsibilities in exercising freedoms of expression.