Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry has labelled as “draconian and pernicious”
harsh penalties that have been prescribed in the Bill against any criticism of Parliament,
the Speaker or a Committee of parliament.
The full text of FLP’s submission on the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill No. 28 to the
Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights herewith:
Our submissions on this Bill is confined to Part 5 – Divisions 1 and 4 :
1.0 Part 5: Miscellaneous
Division -1 Defamation:
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.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to words spoken or acts done by a member within the parliamentary precincts
(3) Nothing in this section prevents Parliament from taking action against any member for any words spoken or acts done within or beyond the parliamentary precincts
1.1 Cl 24 – This draconian provision is completely new and 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.
1.2 It reads, interalia “Any person whose words or actions defame, demean or undermine the sanctity of Parliament, the Speaker or a Committee, commits an offence…”
1.3. The words “demean” , “defame”, “undermine”, “sanctity” have not been defined in the Bill. The Dictionary definition of the words are:
demean – lower the dignity
defame – damage the reputation of
undermine – damage or weaken
sanctity – holiness, supreme importance
1.4 The penalties for offending against this provision are mind boggling and reveal the true motive behind its insertion ie. to intimidate or plant fear in the hearts of the people deterring them from criticising the Speaker, Members of Parliament, the Parliament or any of its Committees.
1.5 Let us look at the prescribed penalties:
• fine not exceeding $30,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or both; (in the case of a natural person)
• fine not exceeding $100,000 or imprisonment for each director and manager for a term not exceeding 5 years or both; (in the case of a body corporate)
1.6 Under this clause any harsh criticism or condemnation of the Speaker’s conduct of parliamentary affairs, no matter how justified, can be construed as an offence. Likewise, criticisms of reports of parliamentary committees or the standard of debate in parliament or its decisions on Bills or motions may be construed as demeaning or undermining its authority or sanctity, if you will.
1.7 There have been several instances where the Speaker’s ruling or conduct of the debate has raised legitimate questions about her impartiality, given the fact that prior to her appointment she was the President of the Fiji First Party, having successfully contested the general elections as a candidate for that Party.
1.8 We have also witnessed several displays of filibustering by the Attorney General which have, in our view, obstructed progress in moving forward the business of the House, in particular by curtailing the time at the disposal of the Opposition to air its views.
1.9 Another shocking imposition to gag Parliament was the drastic reduction in its sitting days from 12 weeks to just 5 weeks. Aside from this, Standing Orders have been amended arbitrarily to curtail debate, disallow questions, schedule parliamentary business without the approval of its Business Committee etc. These abuses of parliamentary practices, conventions and procedures have drawn widespread condemnation of the manner in which the governing party has manipulated the parliamentary process to suit its agenda, and gag the Opposition.
1.10 One may wonder, therefore, that this new provision in the Bill is not just another weapon in its armoury designed to stifle fair criticism and condemnation of such manipulative conduct on the part of the government.
1.11 Is it not incongruous that members of Parliament must 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?
1.12 This legislation comes under the sphere of responsibility of the Attorney-General who has shown little respect for the people’s right to criticise or condemn arbitrary decisions of the government. 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 prejudice against people who have the courage to speak out.
1.13 There remains, therefore, a genuine concern that this pernicious provision has been specifically designed to subdue the critics of government. It is an extremely dangerous provision in the hands of someone who is likely to use it unscrupulously if it suits his cause.
1.14 As stated earlier, it is a new provision which quite understandably, was not in the previous Act because it offends against the right to freedom of expression and speech.
1.15 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.
1.16 It is a pity that the initiators of this provision, although holding high office, have not as yet understood the meaning of democracy and what it implies.
1.17 We propose that this clause be deleted.
2.0 Division 4 – Other Provisions
2.1 Cl 29 (3)(b) – Speaker may prohibit publication of words out of order. The new sub clause reads:
“(b) in the case of a body corporate, to a fine, not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for each director and manager for a term not exceeding 2 years or both.”
2.2 The proposed fine is excessive and should be substantially reduced with the imprisonment provision applying only to the employee or the director who is found to be directly responsible for the publication instead of “each director and manager”.
2.3 The clause as proposed can result in innocent persons being prosecuted, fined and jailed for committing an offence in which they played no part.