Any person who criticises Parliament, the Speaker or a
committee of parliament faces a $30,000 fine or a 5 year
jail term or both, if the proposed Parliamentary
Powers and Privileges Bill becomes law.
Clause 24 of the Bill reads: 24- (1) 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 upon conviction –
(a) in the case of a natural person, to a fine not exceeding $30,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to both; or
(b) in the case of a body corporate, to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for each director and manager for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to both.
It’s draconian and pernicious and has been specifically designed to subdue the critics of government,” said Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry in his submissions to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights.
The legislation comes under the sphere of responsibility of the Attorney General – a man who has “shown little respect for the people’s right to criticise or condemn arbitrary decisions of the government,” Mr. Chaudhry said.
“It is an extremely dangerous provision in the hands of someone who is likely to use it unscrupulously if it suits his cause.
“He certainly does not portray the image of a fair-minded person, prepared to accept criticism where it is due. The role he played in steam-rolling the suspension of two Opposition members from the service of Parliament is, in our view, sufficient evidence of his deep seated prejudice against people who have the courage to speak out,” said Mr. Chaudhry.
The Bill “seeks to criminalise words that may be uttered or printed and actions that may be taken to criticise the Speaker, Members of Parliament, the Parliament itself or a committee of Parliament”.
“Is it not incongruous that members of Parliament reserve for themselves the freedom to hurl the harshest of criticisms at their political opponents under cover of parliamentary privilege without having to worry about civil or criminal proceedings, but deny the people, under threat of imprisonment, their right to criticise or condemn decisions of parliament, its Speaker or committees on matters of public interest? Mr Chaudhry asked.
The penalties, he said, were “mindboggling” and revealed the true motive behind the Bill: to stifle any criticisms of the Speaker, Parliament, its members or committees through intimidation and fear.
“One may wonder whether this new provision in the Bill is not just another weapon in government’s armoury to stifle fair criticism as it pushes the nation towards one-party rule.
He recommended that Clause 24 be deleted. “As an institution Parliament must permit the people to speak freely about the manner of its functioning. In a democracy no institution or individual should be above reproach,” the Labour Leader said.
He said the current law on parliamentary powers and privileges did not contain any such provision. Understandably so, because it would offend against the right to freedom of expression and speech.