Which is the country in South Asia where talking about common flu could land you in prison? Which is the country where writing about a foreign dignitary’s visit could invite the armed police at your doorstep? Which is the country where a part of the country could be sold to a foreign country and its people forced to migrate elsewhere?
No, it is not Pakistan! It is Maldives – a beautiful cluster of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean that beckon tourists from all over the world.
Media in Maldives has been forced into silence; journalists are imprisoned and tried for treason for reporting facts; bloggers jailed for comments; women criminals are sentenced to death by stoning and political leaders locked up for protesting the draconian laws forced on the country by Abdul Yameen regime.
Last year, in August, the Maldivian government introduced a new defamation law which “criminalised“ speech, remarks and other actions deemed “defamatory“ towards the regime and its interests. Amnesty International has termed the law as vaguely worded and voiced concern that “it gives unfettered freedom to the security forces to target and silence peaceful critics”.
Soon after the new anti-defamation law came into force, journalists and media houses were the first to face the wrath of the authorities. Many were slapped with lawsuits and bans, and others simply threatened into submission. Media houses like Haveeru, DhiTV, Addu LIVE and Channel News Maldives were, on occasions, either blocked or forced to shut down.
Four journalists from Raajje TV were charged with obstructing law enforcement officers for covering a protest. In January this year, the court found two of them guilty and imposed a fine of MVR 28,800 (approximately USD 1,870) each. The prosecution wanted four-months of imprisonment for the journalists but they were let off by the court for being “first time offenders“. They are the first journalists to be sentenced in the Maldives in more than a decade.
Media in Maldives is under constant threat. Area for press freedom and free speech is shrinking by the day. Journalists are tried for treason for reporting facts. Bloggers are jailed for comments unpalatable to the regime. Political leaders are locked up for protests, says the veteran political commentator and security analyst
The International Federation of Journalists was “deeply concerned” by the verdict and said such punishments will have a chilling effect on journalists covering incidents that the public deserves to be informed about.
“The journalists were reporting as per their duty and were not wilfully obstructing the policemen. The IFJ believes such charges will weaken the freedom further,” the global journalists’ body said expressing concern about the declining press freedom in the Maldives.
A month after the draconian law came into force, the first major assault was on Maldives Independent, a leading publication. The charge? “This Media house was part of a coup plot”.
The police raided the newspaper, shortly after Al-Jazeera aired a documentary alleging large-scale corruption by President Abdul Yameen and his cabinet ministers. The daily’s editor was one of the people interviewed for the documentary.
Maldives Independent became a target again this February when one of its reporters stumbled upon a story that the Maldivian government was planning to sell an island, Faafu, to Saudi kingdom. The Saudi king was scheduled to visit the island-nation for the formal signing of the deal.
After the reporter, Hassan Moosa, went around Faafu interviewing local residents, his hotel room was surrounded by armed police and he was detained at the local police station where his notebooks and other materials were confiscated. He and his colleagues were charged with “spreading hatred”.
Although the Yameen government denied that the Faafu island was being sold to Saudi Arabia, a leaked audio became public in which a sitting member of Parliament of the ruling party, Ahmed Nihad, disclosed that the Constitution was quietly amended in 2015 at the prodding of the Saudi Royalty to get them a foothold in the country.
The issue soon became a hot potato for the Yameen regime, which has turned its wrath on journalists and social media activists. For instance, two social media activists found tweeting on the popular tag #SaveFaafu were arrested and their phones confiscated.
When Hassan returned to Faafu Island in March this year, reporting as a stringer for The New York Times, he was once again browbeaten to sign a declaration that he would neither talk to the local residents nor would he report on the proposed sale of the island. He had no choice but to sign the papers out of fear for his life and return to the capital city of Male.
Raajje Television journalists received death threats when they went to Faafu atoll to report on the proposed Saudi royal visit. The channel tweeted–“RaajjeTV journalists receive death threats – Do not send your reporters to Faafu Atoll, we will kill them!”
The situation is no different for others. The government controls who could hold demonstrations and public speeches. A law that came into force last year makes it mandatory to seek police permission to hold a protest march in Male. The government banned an anti-corruption rally two month ago. Opposition parties and journalists were denied permission to hold rallies protesting the defamation law.
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