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Maldives: President Signs Bill on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

(Jan. 22, 2013) The office of Maldives’ President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik announced on January 11, 2013, that he had signed the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill; the bill had been passed in the People’s Majlis (the legislature) on December 25, 2012. (Press Release, The President’s Office of the Republic of Maldives, President Ratifies Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill, (Jan. 11, 2013); Luke Powell, Ratification of Limits on Freedom of Assembly Won’t Affect “Revolution”: MDP, MINIVAN NEWS (Jan. 12, 2013).)

The legislation outlaws demonstrations held outside private homes or government offices, in addition to limiting media coverage of protests. (Powell, supra.) In addition, it states that no public gatherings may be held within 200 feet of the presidential and vice-presidential residences, harbors with economic activity, airports, and tourist resorts. The distance restriction on protests applies to the President’s office, the courts of law, and the legislature as government buildings as well as to mosques, schools, hospitals, and buildings with diplomatic offices. Furthermore, demonstrations cannot be held near private residences after 10 p.m. nor can demonstrators use loud speakers or similar equipment near schools and hospitals or near homes after 8 p.m. While prior permission is not required for protest gatherings, when they are planned in advance notice should be given to the local police. (Id.; President Ratifies Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill, HAVEERU ONLINE (Jan. 11, 2013).)

Article 7(a) of the new statute defines a gathering as more than one person “attending a public or private place temporarily and peacefully” with the objective of expressing their views. (Mariyath Mohamed, Parliament Passes Bill Redefining Limitations on Freedom of Assembly, MINIVAN NEWS (Dec. 26, 2012).)

The bill had passed the legislature despite considerable opposition from some members and criticism from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Maldives. The concern is that the changes could restrict freedom of assembly. Hamed Abdul Ghafoor of the Maldivian Democratic Party, which has proposed revolution in the country, objected to the bill, stating:

We are not happy with this bill, and on principle alone we are against it. The current government feels the need to restrict freedom of expression and unwind the democratic gains of this country. … The whole intention of this bill was to respond to our popular uprising. But when the time comes [for the revolution] the bill won’t matter. We will still go out onto the streets. (Powell, supra.)

Two NGOs, Transparency Maldives and the Maldivian Democracy Network, issued a statement on January 2 that raised the issue of the legislation’s ability to “weaken the democratic, good governance system.” (Ahmed Naish, Recent Bills “Restrict Fundamental Rights,” NGOs Warn; MINIVAN NEWS (Jan. 2, 2013).) The statement indicated that the NGOs are particularly concerned about the impact on the constitutional rights of freedom of expression, of the press, and of assembly. (Powell, supra; Dheena Hussain, trans., Functional Translation of the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives 2008, arts. 27, 28, & 32, Republic of Maldives Department of Information website.)

In addition, the Maldives Journalists’ Association and the Maldives Media Council have brought up the issue of the impact of the law on news reporting by local and international journalists. The key provision is the one stating that the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) must within three months create a regulation on accrediting journalists; only those given accreditation will have the access to report on demonstrations and police activities near demonstrations. The concern is that the process of issuing accreditation will not be independent. The President of the Journalists’ Association has said, “[w]e are seeing the MBC failing to address many existing issues even now, so we cannot support handing over additional responsibilities like this to such a body.” (Powell, supra.) He added that the required procedure would create difficulty for reporters from abroad. (Id.)

The new legislation follows an early December 2012 Maldives Supreme Court decision that police should investigate any criminal acts that occur during the exercise of people’s rights to free assembly and expression. (Constance Johnson, Maldives: Supreme Court Decision on Freedom of Assembly and Expression, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Dec. 13, 2012).)