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South Asia

'Against Freedom of Expression': Maldives Journalist Bodies Oppose Provisions in New Bill

Problematic provisions in the new Evidence Bill grant courts the right to demand that sources in journalist's reports be revealed under circumstances.

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New Delhi: Journalist organisations and NGOs in Maldives have, in a joint statement issued on Tuesday, September 28, called for the country’s authorities to drop certain provisions from the Evidence Bill which is currently being debated in the country’s parliament.

The provisions which the statement takes objection to are in Article 128 of the Evidence Bill and grants courts the power to demand the disclosure of journalists’ sources in reports they produce, under certain circumstances.

The two such circumstances included in the Article are: if the court determines that there is no negative impact or significantly less negative impact to sources or others if their identities are revealed or; if revealing the source does not significantly impact journalists’ ability to find sources of factual information.

The Article even affirms Article 28 of the Maldivian constitution which guarantees press freedom and the protection of sources, yet it leaves the judgement of the above mentioned circumstances to the court’s discretion. The statement describes the provisions as “deeply problematic” and “in contravention to the right of freedom of expression”.

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The joint statement has been signed by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), its affiliate the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), the Maldives Editors Guild, Transparency Maldives and Amnesty International.

The government sent the Evidence Bill to the People’s Majlis (Maldives’s legislative body) on August 30.

The joint statement states that the provisions in question will “significantly restrict the freedoms enshrined in Article 28 of the constitution”. Article 28 of the Maldives constitution, titled ‘Freedom of the Media’, states, “No person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated or published by that person.” 

The statement goes on to say that an obligation to disclose journalistic sources is in contravention to the right to freedom of expression as enclosed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Maldives is a party.

Describing the criteria for exceptions listed in the Evidence Bill as “vague”, the statement says that these two exceptions cannot be “objectively quantified” since courts would not know the identities of the sources when deciding whether or not the disclosure of their identities is permissible under the exceptions listed.

The statement notes that enacting these provisions “will lead to a significant reversal of press freedom in the Maldives”. Maldives has made significant improvements in this regard, climbing from 120th on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index in 2018 to 72nd place in 2021, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

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The statement also notes that the provisions carry with them the risk of “generating a wider effect of fear and self-censorship”. It notes that the fear of being exposed in a court may cause sources to refuse to talk to journalists if the bill is enacted into a law.

‘Reversing progress’

Mohamed Hamdoon, president of the MJA, noted the potential of the bill to reverse the gains made by the Maldives in terms of press freedom and went on to say, “The Maldives Journalist Association calls on the government and the People’s Majlis to take immediate action to restore confidence in the journalistic right to source protection and withdraw Article 136 (b) of the new Evidence Bill without delay.”

Maldives’s improvements vis-a-vis press freedoms have been linked with current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih coming to power in November, 2018. His predecessor, Abdullah Yameen was regarded as being openly hostile to the media, in no small part due to the enforcement of the Defamation Act under his rule in August, 2016.

The defamation law, which came into force amid allegations of corruption against Yameen’s government, criminalised comments “against any tenet of Islam” or those which threaten national security” or “contradict general social norms”. Repealing this law was part of Solih’s presidential campaign, which he followed through on after coming to power in 2018.

In the joint statement, Ahmed Zahir (Hiraga), president of the Maldives Editors Guild said, “The government has previously repealed the anti-defamation act and enacted whistleblower protections, which enable people to disclose wrongdoing and abuses anonymously. Now the government seems to be moving to reverse this progress.”

Jane Worthington, the IFJ’s Asia Pacific director, noted that the Evidence Bill’s provisions “totally undermine all of the media reform progress that has been made in the country,” and stated the IFJ’s opposition to the move in the joint statement.

Similarly, Asiath Rilweena, Transparency Maldives executive director, called on the government “immediately withdraw” the contentious provisions, as did Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International.

Mishra also said, “The vague language of the proposed provision also leaves room for intimidation and harassment of journalists and their sources, who will be deterred from speaking the truth out of fear of reprisals” and invoked the Maldivian authorities’ obligations under international human rights law to do away with the provisions in question.