May 9, 2017 4:12 pm

Powers and Privileges – The right to criticise our leaders

Critics argue that a proposed law will stifle democracy and interfere with people’s freedom of expression.

The Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill (Bill No. 28) was introduced in Parliament by the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum last year.  The Bill was sent to the Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights in June after the second reading.

The AG said that the Bill would replace the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act (Cap. 5), enacted in 1965 and amended in 1970 and 1975.

AG: “The Act provides for the powers and privileges of Members and officers of Parliament…It was prudent to review the Act, given that the Act has never been amended since 1975”

The AG said the Bill outlined “provisions for offences committed against Parliament, the Committee of Parliament, a member and an officer of Parliament.”

AG: “We sought the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme, the office based in Suva, with the assistance of the New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office, they worked together with the Solicitor-General to review the Act and prepare the new law.”

What is clause 24?

Under the heading “Defamation”, clause 24 of the Bill says that “Any person whose words or actions defame, demean or undermine the sanctity of Parliament, the Speaker or a committee commits an offence and is liable on conviction.”

The punishment for the crime is listed as:

  • Individuals:  a fine of up to $30,000 or a maximum of five years in prison, or both.
  • Corporates: a fine of up to $100,000 or a maximum of five years in prison, or both, for each director and manager.

Suva lawyer Richard Naidu said clause 24 was “characterised by overkill and paranoia” and he was unaware of any similar law in any other country.

Mr Naidu said the clause was vaguely worded and an ordinary person could go to prison for five years for breaching the law.

NAIDU: “But if a company manager criticised Parliament for passing a law he or she did not like, all of the directors and managers of that company could also go to prison for five years, even if they knew nothing of what their manager had said.”

In response, the Government Whip and chairman of the Committee, Hon. Ashneel Sudhakar said the Bill protected Parliament and people were free to criticise parliamentarians.

SUDHAKAR: “From my reading, it doesn’t say anywhere that you can’t criticise your MP. I think there is a misconception and an obvious political slant to this…It (clause 24) just says you cannot defame or demean the sanctity of Parliament, that is, the institution of Parliament and the Speaker and a committee.”

The Fiji Times has published a barrage of criticisms while other media organisations have shied away from discussing the proposed law.

National Federation Party will repeal if they win in 2018.  So will SODELPA, while Fiji Labour Party has labelled the Bill as “pernicious”.

Amnesty International wants the Bill thrown out while Citizens Constitutional Forum wants clause 24 removed.

A former human rights commissioner said the Bill interfered with the country’s freedom of expression, while a human rights lawyer said there was no logical explanation for clause 24.

What else is in the Bill?

The Bill largely mimics the 1965 Act, removing references to the Senate which existed in previous Constitutions.  The AG said this was done to make the Bill compliant with the 2013 Constitution.

Immunity protects parliamentarians from civil or criminal proceedings for anything said in Parliament and actions relating to any motion or business in Parliament.

The Parliament has the power to summon any person to appear before Parliament or any committee.  Witnesses would have the same rights as when appearing before a court, and the proceedings will be considered “judicial proceedings”.

When is this Bill expected to become law?

The Bill was restored in the Order Paper in September 2016 as it had lapsed due to “prorogation”.

Since August last year, the Committee has held public consultations and received submissions from various organisations.  The deadline for submissions is May 15 this year after which the Committee is expected to submit its report to Parliament.

The Committee is required to review the Bill in detail and vote on each clause after considering submissions, then report to the Parliament where it would again be reviewed clause-by-clause.

The Bill will then be read a third time, and after the debate and a vote could be passed as a law.

Under normal parliamentary rules, it would take more time and scrutiny before the Bill is passed and enacted into law.  However, Bills can be expedited through Parliament under Section 47(3) of the Constitution and Standing Order 51.