The Maldives

Swimming against the tide

As journalists are arrested, detained and questioned over content, and content found ‘objection-able’ could lead to huge arbitrary fines, the threat to the media and journalists is high and there is widespread self-censorship due to an atmosphere of fear.

The Maldives has been in the throes of a severe political crisis since early 2018, when Presi-dent Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency on February 5 and embarked on a mission to crack down on any opposition to his authority. The move was a response to the Supreme Court’s February 1, 2018, order to release political prisoners and reinstate 12 Members of Par-liament. If the court order had been followed, President Yameen would have found himself in a minority in the Parliament, facing a possible impeachment motion.

However, President Yameen effectively averted a personal crisis by declaring a state of emer-gency, detaining opposition leaders including members of parliament, dismissing and arresting the Chief Justice and a Supreme Court judge on charges of corruption, coming down heavily on opposition, and silencing all his critics including media.

The media and journalists faced a challenging situation during the emergency with critical and opposition media and journalists facing harassment, and others resorting to self-censorship. During the emergency, journalists were detained and attacked; media was threatened by gov-ernment agencies with action for their unfavourable reporting, and ruling party leaders publicly called for shutting down opposing media.

The state of emergency – which lasted 45 days – represented an eruption of the deep churning, risks and challenges that the Maldivian media and journalists faced during the year. Waves of restrictions on freedom of expression and press freedom continue in the Maldives as its at-tempts to muzzle critical voices went unabated. State attempts to restrict press freedom result-ed in fear among the media and journalists at a scale that critical news was difficult to publish in media operated from within the Maldives. Self-censorship – especially in issues critical to the government and anything relating to the opposition – was widespread and apparent in media content in the country.

Media in emergency

The state of emergency, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International, was used as a ‘license for heightened repression’ by the Maldivian government. During the emergency, the op-position-aligned Raajje TV was forced to go ‘off air’ for 56 hours owing to the dangers to the me-dia and journalists. On February 9, 2018, the station suspended its regular broadcast due to “in-creased harassment, threats and intimidation” and what it termed an “unsafe environment for journalists to report freely and independently, and without fear”. The closure came after the rul-ing party leaders’ pubic call to shut down the station and the withdrawal of security provided by the Maldives Police.

On February 9, 2018, two journalists working for Agence France-Presse, Indian photographer Money Sharma and British videographer Atish Patel, were asked to leave the country after being picked up by police for doing journalistic activities on tourist visa.

Journalists also faced arrest and detention while covering opposition rallies during the emer-gency. On February 14, 2018, Mohamed Riyaz, technician with Vmedia, a news outlet owned by opposition leader Qasim Ibrahim, was arrested while assisting the channel’s crew covering the opposition rally. He was later released. Two days later on February 16, Hussain Hassan from RaajjeTV and Leevan Ali Nasir from VTV are arrested during a protest rally at Male and were later released. Around 20 other journalists were taken to hospital after being pepper-sprayed by the police. Hassan travelled to Sri Lanka for treatment despite police’s attempt to arrest him at the airport.

On March 16, the police arrested Raajje TV journalists Mohamed Wisam, Mohamed Fazeen, and its Head of Programmes, Amir Saleem. Fazeen was arrested while covering a joint opposi-tion protest for allegedly disobeying a police officer, while Wisam and Amir were taken into cus-tody with a court order on allegations of staging and uploading a fake video of policemen saying they would join opposition rally. Fazeen was released two days later while Wisam and Saleem were put into custody for 11 days before the court ordered their release on March 27 as police failed to present any evidence against them. The police returned their confiscated phones only on April 11, 2018.

The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) went on an all-out verbal attack on Raajje TV and VTV. Lawmaker Ahmed Nihan alleged in a tweet that the protests had been organised by the media: “We see tonight’s rally being led by journalists from RaajjeTV and VTV”. On February 16, 2018 PPM vice president Abdul Raheem Abdulla demanded action against media outlets that spread discord saying that “RaajjeTV and VTV incited hatred and violence” and that they “work to misinform and put the public into a state of panic”.

Deputy leader of PPM Abdul Raheem Abdulla on March 17 called on the authorities to shut down privately-run Raajje TV in a press conference broadcast live on Public Service Media.

Threats from state agencies

On February 8, 2018, the Ministry of Defence and National Security warned of action on those found to have brought forward content impacting national security without a prior notice. The statement added that live shows and programs on media could “create chaos, confusion in pub-lic and create discord within the society”.

On February 17, 2018, the Maldives police in a press release asked journalists to be “more pro-fessional”. The police claimed that some journalists had acted like ‘protestors’ a day earlier in a rally and some media outlets had spread misleading information during live coverage. On the same day, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) issued a circular saying that some broadcasters were airing content threatening peace and stability and cautions broadcasters to exercise restraint ‘when bringing live coverage’.

The Maldives Transport Authority also joined in issuing warning to media on February 28. The authority urged the media against spreading unsubstantiated reported regarding Xin Yuan 18 – a vessel with the Maldivian flag that allegedly supplied oil to North Korea. The authority was denying any link to the vessel and warned media against reporting it otherwise.

Repression builds up

However, the silencing of critical voices started much earlier than the emergency. In fact, on September 12, 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussain said the Maldivian government was “increasingly cracking down on critical views” during the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.

The decisions of the state-controlled MBC strongly indicate censorship and legal harassment of media. The MBC has imposed hefty fines on opposition-aligned Raajje TV thrice – each time im-mediately after the station paid the earlier fine. Raajje TV receives third defamation fine on Octo-ber 8 when the MBC fined it MVR500,000 (USD 32,425) for airing comments made by MP Mo-hamed Musthafa on Raajje TV on July 28, calling them a “threat to national security”. MP Mo-hamed Musthafa was not fined for defamation. It should be noted that the television network has also been fined for airing a slogan chanted during an opposition rally in a live coverage.

Sangu TV was fined MVR 100,000 (USD 6,500) and asked to apologize publicly on March 28 over remarks aired of an opposition lawmaker in December 2017. MP Mohamed Musthafa was said to have used an obscenity and defame President Yameen during a live event when he said the present administration has “introduced nothing but theft to the country”, the MBC concluded deciding over the fine. The privately-operated station refused to offer a public apology until it was issued a court order to do so and said it will file a court case against any decision once de-positing the fine.

The fines were imposed under the controversial Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act 2016 that was heavily criticised by local and international organisations as being restrictive and contrary to international standards. The MBC also slapped a fine of MVR 200,000 (USD12,970) on state-owned Public Service Media over defamatory remarks made by a ruling party lawmaker at a televised press conference.

The MBC fined Medianet – the country’s main cable television service provider – MVR 500,000 (USD32,425) on June 17, 2017 for rebroadcasting an Al Jazeera corruption exposé in Septem-ber. The Stealing Paradise documentary, which exposed systemic corruption, abuse of power and criminal activity at the highest level of government, was deemed to pose a threat to national security and the Maldives government blacked out the documentary in the Maldives. After Al Jazeera announced the release of the documentary, the ministers and ruling party lawmakers threatened to take action against all of the film’s Maldivian contributors. The government also launched a media offensive against the documentary, even before it aired, accusing Al Jazeera of a conspiracy to topple the government as well as economic sabotage. A prominent editor ap-pearing in the documentary – Zaheena Rasheed of the Maldives Independent, left the country because of the threat and currently still lives in exile.

The Maldives’ Majlis (Parliament) has been a bitter ground for dispute among ruling and opposi-tion lawmakers with ugly scenes such as eviction of lawmakers, presence of high number of security personal and scenes of fist-fights between the lawmakers. However, the MBC denied the Maldivian peoples their right to know what is happening in their parliament by warning TV stations against broadcasting footage live-streamed on social media by MPs who are inside the parliament chamber saying such videos contained “obscene language and content contrary to standards of public decency”. It advised broadcasters to “ensure that scenes like this are broadcasted in line with the Broadcasting Act, regulations under the Act, the Broadcasting Code of Practice, and the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act”. Legal action would be taken against those who violate broadcasting laws, the commission warned.

Harassment of journalists

As journalists are arrested, detained and questioned over content, and content found ‘objection-able’ could lead to huge arbitrary fines, the threat to the media and journalists is high and there is widespread self-censorship due to an atmosphere of fear.

Journalists in the Maldives are questioned over news content and legally harassed over their coverage of any programs organised by opposition political parties. Police questioned journalists at the news websites Avas and Mihaaru on February 1, 2018, after the sites published a state-ment issued by the jailed former vice president of the Maldives, Ahmed Adeeb. Police went to their office without prior notice and officers asked how the statement was obtained.

In June 10, 2017, V news senior editor Ahmed Rifau was summoned for questioning at the police headquarters over a headline about the arrest of a senior opposition figure in June. The police contended that the headline, ‘Adam Azim arrested on charges of trying to topple the govern-ment,’ misrepresented the content of the arrest warrant. Azim was accused of speaking in a manner that encouraged the illegal overthrow of the government and of undermining public trust and inciting hatred toward the judiciary.

A number of journalists – four from Sangu TV and three from Raajje TV, were arrested and oth-ers roughed up during an opposition rally held on the 52nd Independence Day in July. The jour-nalists detained on charges of “obstructing the duties of a law enforcement officer” were Mo-hamed Wisam, Murshid Abdul Hakeem and videographer Ahmed Mamdhooh of Raajje TV, and Adam Janah, Ahmed Riffath, Mohamed Shanoon, and Abdullah Yamin of Sangu TV. They were later released.

On May 29, 2017, the Maldivian police issued summons on Twitter to three liberal bloggers -Dr Azra Naseem, Muzaffar ‘Muju’ Naeem, and Hani Amir- living abroad to present themselves for prosecution over unspecified charges. The police said they would ask the Prosecutor General’s office to press charges and try them in absentia if they refused. All three bloggers are known for their secular views and critical writing on Maldivian society and politics.

Further clampdown afoot

Further media restrictions are likely to be imposed as the government-sponsored bill for the ‘Maldives Media Commission’ was tabled in the Parliament. Proposed by ruling party lawmaker Jafar Dawood for the creation of a new media regulatory body after dissolving the broadcasting commission and media council, the proposed regulator can impose hefty fines and temporarily shut down newspapers and TV stations. After investigating breaches of a new code of ethics, the Maldives Media Commission can order print and online outlets to make corrections, issue warnings, and impose fines of up to MVR100,000 (USD6,485) for repeated violations.

If written or broadcast content is deemed to pose a danger to Islam, national security, public or-der or public health, the Commission can ask the police to stop publication or broadcast. The Commission can also seek court judgments to cancel the registration or broadcasting license of newspapers and TV stations. Journalists believe that the new bill, once passed, will target the print and online media. The current MBC can only target televisions and radios and the new Bill has been conceived so as to ensure that the print and online media come within the jurisdiction of the state-controlled authority.

International non-profit Transparency International Maldives condemned the government for proposing a bill that would merge two existing media watchdogs and “expand its sphere of state control on print and social media as well”. There was no progress in the Bill due to the political crisis and the state of emergency, but it is likely to be revived once the situation is normal.

Similarly, the Maldives government also issued new guidelines on the qualification for editors and asked all media outlets to meet the guidelines within 18 months. A Home Ministry regulation gazetted in January, 2018 imposes new criteria for editors at registered media outlets. According to the guidelines, editors need to be a Maldivian, aged 25 and above, have a degree in journal-ism or a related field as well as five years’ experience at a ministry-registered media organisa-tion. The guidelines are seen as a way to control media given there are only 483 people with a graduate degree in Maldives, according to 2014 census.

Building regional solidarity

In September 2017, the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) meeting in Kathmandu focussed attention on the Maldives as a zone in need of urgent intervention to protect press freedom and journalists’ rights. While expressing solidarity with Maldivian journalists, SAMSN pointed at the need for strategies for national, regional and international solidarity to enable meaningful interventions in the public sphere, both inside and outside the beleaguered region.

The major issues in the Maldives, often interconnected were broadly related to arbitrary and re-peated (mis)use of the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act 2016 to penalize critical voices; the threat to critical voice; the state censorship of media content; violation of press free-dom and journalist’s rights including arrests and criminal cases against journalists; new tougher law and regulations on the offing; impunity for perpetrators in the crimes against journalists; and self-censorship by the journalists.

The Election Commission has announced the first round of presidential elections in early Sep-tember 2018. A second round, should it be necessary, would be held within 21 days from first election day. President Yameen is looking for a new mandate to extend his presidency, while the opposition is looking for an opportunity to oust him. The media, reeling under constant pressure from threats and repression and resorting to self-censorship, will face yet another challenge to cover the election in an independent manner. Although the EC had promised to allow foreign journalists to cover the election, there are already stricter measures for visa issuance for jour-nalists in place.

With the election looming amidst the political crisis, the media is likely to witness another chal-lenging year where press freedom comes under severe pressure.