The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) and Maldives Police Service have both expressed concern over the recently passed Parliamentary Privileges Act.
The bill was forced into law last week after parliamentarians voted by a majority of 41 to overrule a previous presidential veto. The Majlis had originally approved the bill and sent it for ratification on December 27, 2012.
The bill was later returned by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.
In a statement released on Sunday (March 10), the MJA claimed the legislation posed serious challenges for free and independent journalism. The association therefore urged parliament to “immediately” change the extra-constitutional clauses that it said compromised the rights and freedom given to journalists by the constitution.
MJA contended that stipulations stated in Section 17(a) of the act – which concerns the summoning of parties to give witness to parliament or its committees – meant that journalists could be forced by the parliament to reveal their sources. The association contended that such a clause to provide sources would undermine Article 28 of the Maldives Constitution.
Section 17(a) of the Parliamentary Privileges Act states: “[Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee has the power to] summon anyone to parliament or one of its committees to give witness or to hand over any information which the parliament wish to seek.”
However, Article 28 of the constitution states – “Everyone has the right to freedom of the press, and other means of communication, including the right to espouse, disseminate and publish news, information, views and ideas. No person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated or published by that person.”
The MJA, in its statement, claimed that such contradictions gave “reason for doubt” on the legality of the stated article of the Parliamentary Privileges Act.
It also claimed that certain clauses of the act were too vague and ambiguous, and could leave questions as to how a person can violate the privilege of the parliament open to interpretation.
The association claimed former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration had previously tried to limit instances where journalists faced criminal prosecutions.
However, in its most recent statement, the MJA said it questioned whether Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had now changed its stand towards the issue.
The Parliamentary Privileges Act was passed with bipartisan support including that of the opposition MDP, which presently holds the largest number of elected officials in parliament.
Meanwhile, Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz in an interview given to local media also expressed concern over the act, claiming the MPs are now “technically immune from the law”.
The commissioner of police stated that the act meant police would not be allowed to arrest a parliamentarian even if he was involved in severe corruption and bribery.
Section 3(b) of the Privileges Act states: “A member of parliament should not be arrested while he is on his way to execute his parliamentary duties or while he is inside the premises of the parliament or while he is on his way from the parliament. However, the section does not obstruct arresting a member of parliament who is found committing a crime and the due legal process involving the arrest.”
In the event that an MP has to be arrested under different circumstances, police must provide a court order obtained through an application by the Prosecutor General, according to the act.
Commissioner Riyaz claimed that the act gives enormous privileges to parliamentarians – privileges that are not even given to former presidents, which he said was “very concerning” and meant there would be no equality before the law.
“The [act] says that no person should indulge in an act that obstructs the work of the parliament. I really don’t comprehend what it is trying to say. I don’t think anybody would know beforehand what the parliament may decide to do. I don’t believe that is possible,” he said.
Riyaz further stated that he had requested Attorney General Azima Shukoor find a solution through the Supreme Court concerning the sections which obstructed the execution of police duty.
“The law even does not bar judges from being taken in for questioning. But according to this act, it seems to claim that MPs cannot be arrested at all,” he said.
He further criticised the bill for including the punishment of imprisonment for the offence of violating parliamentary privilege, stating that such criminalisation did not fit with modern democratic practices and standards.
According to the act, a person found guilty of committing offences deemed disrespectful towards parliament, or that interferes with the Majlis work, would face a fine or a jail sentence of between three to six months.
It further stipulates that members of the public found guilty of disruption while attending the People’s Majlis to view proceedings would either be fined between MVR 500 (US$32) or MVR 1000 (US$65) or sentenced to jail for three to six months.
Moreover, persons found guilty of providing false information to the parliament or any of its committees would be fined an amount between MVR 3,000 (US$195) and MVR 10,000 (US$650) or sentenced to three to six months in jail.
Parliament Counsel General Fathimath Filza was not responding at time of press.