Transparency International Vanuatu (TIV) will be asking the Head of State not to sign the recent amendments to the Penal Code [CAP 135] that were approved under the Bill of the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act No. of 2021, particularly on criminal libel and slander.
“When you are a leader and you have accepted that leadership position, especially in politics, it comes with responsibility. Sometimes this comes with praises and encouragements, but it also invites criticism and that is something you cannot escape when you are a leader”, says Dr. Willie Tokon, CEO of TIV, a local organization working against corruption in Vanuatu.
Dr. Tokon continues, “Sometimes it will be diplomatic, but other times it will be direct because now the Vanuatu citizen knows his or her constitutional right to express himself or herself”.
TIV makes the statement on the heels of the amendment which has been passed by Parliament and is understood to be currently in consideration by the President of the Republic for signing and gazetting into law.
TIV believes the amendments pose a significant risk to the ability of the media community and civil society organizations to represent and advocate for the ordinary Vanuatu citizen and for citizens themselves to speak up for their rights.
“The Constitutional Right to Freedom of Expression is found in Chapter Two of the Constitution. What it means is that if you are not happy about something or with somebody, you are allowed by our ‘Mama law’ to express yourself”, the TIV CEO says.
“This is a fundamental part of all democracies. Our concern is that such a bill could be used to protect leaders, especially Provincial Councilors and Members of Parliament, from being questioned about their responsibilities regarding how they behave or spend their allocations in their communities or apply preferential treatment in Government services and operations.
“It could also be viewed as a deliberate tool to protect law-breaking leaders from being questioned, exposed via the Right to Information (RTI) Act or prosecuted for their non-compliance with the Leadership Code, or for corrupt activities or crimes.
“If it becomes law, citizens would be deterred from holding their leaders to account: especially a ‘big man’ or leader in a community for fear that they might be jailed for voicing a concern. Then, where does the Constitutional Right to ‘Freedom of Expression’ go, if a member of the public is no longer able to express himself or herself about the quality of leadership of his or her leader?
“If your Councilor or MP has been in office for the last two years without building the access road to your village that he or she promised during political campaign or has not repaired your school or clinic after promising to, you have the right to ask how or where his or her allocations have been spent.”
TIV encourages all leaders to come out and express themselves in the media. Leaders must use the media to clear themselves when they are criticized, rather than hiding behind legal threats. It is this open dialogue that holds leaders to account and ensures they carry out their duties to their people.
TIV will send a copy of this statement to the President of the Republic of Vanuatu, requesting him not to sign it into Law.
Instead, TIV recommends that Vanuatu goes back to its roots, tradition and culture. Vanuatu citizens can and do practice the traditional public apology if they say or do something that has hurt or injured another citizen.
To all Leaders — TIV urges you to work with the media, civil society organizations and the communities you serve to ensure you are open and accountable. This is your responsibility to your people, the people who elected you to that leadership position.
To Vanuatu citizens, TIV says, “continue to stand up for your Rights and speak out against corruption so that we can hold our leaders to account and create a safer, stronger country”.