The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged the president of the Maldives to reject a widely criticised defamation bill that the Indian Ocean archipelago’s Parliament passed on Tuesday.

The law would reportedly criminalise defamation, as well as communication that includes any gesture deemed to be against “any tenet of Islam”, Reuters reported.

President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has supported the measure despite international criticism and the prediction by opponents that the bill, which would affect broadcast media as well as online newspaper and social media, would harm investigative journalism.

The Maldives United Opposition coalition said in a statement that the measure “prevents journalists from reporting allegations if the accused refuses to comment, preventing coverage of speeches at political rallies, and gives government authorities sweeping powers to target the media”.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis echoed those concerns.

“The broad sweep of this bill and the steep penalties it would impose would severely restrict journalists’ ability to do their job, undermining democracy and citizens’ ability to hold their leaders accountable,” he said. “Criminalising defamation stifles dissent and goes against international standards promoting free expression. We strongly urge President Yameen to reflect on the harm this bill will cause and to withhold his approval.”

If signed, the bill would impose fines of 50,000 MVR (approx. €2,900) to 2 million MVR (approx. €117,000), and those who fail to pay could face from three to six months behind bars. Print and online publications found to have published defamatory content could also see their licenses revoked.

The bill was proposed in March in the wake of a corruption scandal that allegedly implicated Yameen and MPs in the theft of more than €71 million from state coffers. Senior journalists at the time warned that the bill would “prevent journalists and citizens from speaking out over serious accusations of corruption and the integrity of state officials”.

The bill was passed despite opposition from Western governments, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the EU and Australia, which expressed concern that it would erode democracy and curb basic human rights, such as free speech.

The Maldivian government brushed off that criticism, however, noting that most EU states still criminalise defamation. IPI research confirms that fact, although those laws are rarely used against journalists in Europe and IPI has called for their repeal.

According to Transparency Maldives, the bill also violates constitutional protections on free expression and protection of journalists.

An initial version of the bill was more draconian, providing fines of up to 5 million MVR and imprisonment of up to one year, but critics call the revisions insufficient.

The Maldives Foreign Ministry has defended the bill, saying that it does not curb free speech but instead protects victims of defamation and prevents misinformation that impacts “issues of religious sentiment and national security.” The Ministry also labelled arguments that the bill violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights “fallacious and ill-informed”.