Journalists and social media moderators in Vanuatu could face up to three years in prison under a new invoice which widely criminalizes threatening words, gestures and the “reckless” exchange of false statements.
Changes to the criminal defamation and defamation provisions of the South Pacific country’s Criminal Code Law mean that Ni-Vanuatu could now face imprisonment for “any representation that is false or misleading” on public platforms such as “television, radio, Internet websites, social networking sites and blog sites ”.
The amendments were approved by Vanuatu’s parliament on Monday and will become law once the president publishes them.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman said the changes were aimed at addressing the way people speak on social platforms, but acknowledged that their effects could be more far-reaching, those of Vanuatu. The Daily Post newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Dr. Tess Newton Cain, program leader at the Griffith Asia Institute Pacific Hub, told The Guardian that the broad wording of the penal code amendments could have “a significant chilling effect” on journalists and others who express their views on everything from talkback radio to Facebook.
It noted that while freedom of expression was guaranteed by Article 5 of the Vanuatu constitution, it was also “subject to a number of limitations.”
Placing defamation in criminal law instead of civil law imposes the responsibility to present complaints to the police rather than to the whistleblower, added Newton Cain, who said it “could have a very significant impact on whether journalists choose to publish stories.” .
Gene Wong, editor of the Daily Post, said he was “concerned” that the laws would make slander and defamation part of the criminal code rather than a civil matter, but that since the mainstream media follow a code ethics “we should be able to cover ourselves.”
Instead, Wong said that “the amendments appear to be directed against social media and, in particular, some Facebook sites.”
This raises particular concerns considering the popularity of social media groups in Vanuatu, such as the Facebook group Yumi Tok Tok Stret, which has 121,000 members, which is equivalent to more than a third of Vanuatu’s population.
Dr. Basil Leodoro, surgeon and founder of Tasinga Telehealth Services, told The Guardian that social media provides “an avenue for citizens to express themselves, ask questions, interact, educate, and possibly contribute to social dialogue and government policy.” .
In 2018, Leodoro was temporarily suspended from his job as a surgeon at a government hospital after raising questions in a Facebook post about the government’s allocation of disaster relief funds after a volcanic eruption.
Following community support for his reinstatement, Leodoro returned to work. The Vanuatu Public Service Commission later claimed that he was suspended for a different reason, Radio New Zealand reported.
Leodoro said he was interested in seeing how people would respond to the amendments and if they would be implemented. “Social networks and their influence on any democracy and life in general, is inevitable,” he said.
Stevenson Liu, president of MAV, the Vanuatu media industry organization, said the association was encouraged that the prime minister had said the law could be amended, adding that MAV would ensure that the media continue their ” vigilance function against possible corruption “.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism