UN officials and human rights groups have praised the decision by the Maldivian Majlis to decriminalise defamation.

On 23 November, Majlis members voted 34-7 in favour of a government-proposed bill to abolish articles in the penal code that criminalize defamation.

Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has praised the move.

“I welcome this positive step taken by the Parliament and the implementation of one of the recommendations that I had made following my official visit to the Maldives in March this year,” La Rue stated, in a press release issued by the UN on 1 December.

International press freedom watchdog, ARTICLE 19, called the decision to decriminalize defamation a “clear victory for freedom of expression.”

“ARTICLE 19 is very pleased to welcome the Maldives to the growing community of democracies around the world that have decriminalised defamation,” they said in a press release.

La Rue and Article 19 both urged the Maldives to continue its reforms to safeguard freedom of expression.

“We call on the government and parliament to continue to introduce needed reforms in the area of freedom of expression, including in the areas of broadcasting and the right to information,” Article 19 stated.

Commenting on the Majlis vote, President Nasheed stated:

“Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy and good governance. For democracy to be effective, citizens must be able to hold those in power to account without fear of retribution. I commend all those MPs who voted in favour of decriminalizing defamation.”

Last week, the government submitted a ‘right to information’ bill to parliament, to improve government transparency and accountability.

This year, the Maldives jumped 53 places in Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) annual Press Freedom Index - the biggest improvement in press freedom by any country in 2009.

In their 2009 index of civil liberties, Freedom House also upgraded the Maldives from a ‘Not Free’ to a ‘Partially Free’ country.