Very Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Crown.
SPEAKER of Parliament Dr Jiko Luveni says “there is no law currently that prevents people from criticising parliamentarians”.
Responding to questions regarding the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill 2016 (Bill No.28 of 2016), Dr Luveni said the Bill was before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights which had already called for public submissions.
Under clause 24 of the Bill, any person whose words or actions defames, demean or undermine the sanctity of Parliament, the Speaker or a committee commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding $30,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to both, and 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 five years, or to both.
Dr Luveni said people were encouraged to air their views on the Bill to the committee as hearings were open to the public.
“The deadline for written submissions is 15th May 2017 and this week beginning tomorrow (today), the committee will be holding oral submissions.
“Anyone wishing to make a submission on the Bill, including political parties, is to contact the secretariat.”
She said there were laws in place that protected the freedom of speech in Parliament and protected people and witnesses who made submissions or appear before parliamentary committees.
Yesterday, prominent Suva lawyer Richard Naidu of Munro Leys said it was unthinkable in any democracy that there should be a law which prevented people from criticising Parliament.
“This violates their (people’s) freedom of expression and their right to demand accountability from their MPs,” Mr Naidu said.
He said clause 24 of the Bill made it a crime to “defame, demean or undermine the sanctity of Parliament, the Speaker or a committee”.
“This is so vaguely worded that a person could be prosecuted for saying virtually anything about Parliament.
“The law might understand the word ‘defame’. But the words ‘demean or undermine’ could mean anything.”
Mr Naidu said the word “sanctity” did not even exist in most legal dictionaries.
“It means being holy, sacred or saintly. Parliament is not holy, sacred or saintly. It is a place where ordinary people, elected by other ordinary people, engage in debate and pass laws.
“The same people can also make mistakes, behave badly and waste the money that taxpayers pay to keep them there.
“Those people work for us. And like any employer, we are allowed to criticise the people who work for us.”
He said under the Bill, it was bad enough that a ordinary person could go to prison for five years for breaching the law.
“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.
“So the whole of clause 24 is characterised by overkill and paranoia.
“I’m unaware of any similar law in any country which calls itself a democracy.”
Yesterday, the National Federation Party said they would repeal the Parliamentary Power and Privileges Bill – which is Bill 28 of 2016, if it forms a Government.
In a statement, party leader Professor Biman Prasad said clause 24 of the Bill would allow Parliament to jail and fine people if they “defame, demean or undermine the sanctity of Parliament”.
“It goes without saying that we oppose it. An NFP government will ensure clause 24 of the Parliamentary Privileges Bill will never see the light of day,” Prof Prasad said.
“Parliamentarians are the people’s servants. The people elect them and the people pay them.
“The people are also allowed to criticise them, even if we as parliamentarians think the criticism is unfair.”
Prof Prasad said freedom of expression is also the freedom to differ with the Government.
He said there was no democratic country in the world where such a law existed.