Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
The media environment in 2011 started to decline following periods of political and social unrest, with increased scrutiny of and violence against journalists. The 2008 constitution protects freedom of expression, but also places restrictions on speech deemed “contrary to the tenets of Islam.” The overall legal framework protecting free expression remained weak, with many proposed media reform bills still awaiting passage. In November 2011, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), the legal entity assigned to regulate broadcast media, drafted new regulations that would curtail the power and reach of the broadcast media, through high licensing fees and an ownership structure that would favor international monopolies. While these changes have yet to be implemented, they pose a worrisome precedent for the Maldivian media. In August, the MBC announced that it was planning to sue Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz for withholding its annual budget approved by the parliament for 2011.
A 2008 law called for the establishment of an independent Media Council, consisting of eight media workers and seven members of the public, tasked with developing a code of conduct for journalists and investigating complaints from the public against both print and broadcast outlets. While advocacy groups warned about the potential for government influence (the minister of information nominates the public candidates) and noted that self-regulation was preferable to statutory regulation, they cautiously welcomed the formation of the council and an end to formal control over media content by the ministry. After a considerable delay, elections to the council were held in May 2010. The election process was criticized for not being sufficiently transparent, and former members of political parties were nominated as candidates to the council. In October 2011, the Maldives Media Council (MMC) was found to have unlawfully distributed living allowances to its members, despite provisions in the MMC Act stipulating that no additional money other than wages be given to council members for their work.
The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), formed in 2009, regularly made statements regarding media freedom issues and journalists’ rights during the year, accusing the government and political leaders of interference with the private media in a number of cases. Following the reports of corruption within the MMC, the MJA, along with other media watchdog organizations, called for a separate and independent regulatory body to be formed.
Over the past few years, greater media diversity had led to improved coverage of major political events and issues, such as the May 2009 parliamentary elections. However, throughout 2011, the media faced limitations to access information, threats from the police, and an inability to cover certain topics. While the Maldives provides protection in its basic law for journalists to maintain confidentiality of sources, it has become regular practice for the police to summon journalists for interrogation about their sources and authenticity of news reports. In a few cases, journalists were physically limited in their ability to report. In May, a number of journalists suffered various injuries while covering a protest against the rising prices of commodities, some as a result of being pushed back by police riot shields. In November, journalists were detained on Dhoonidhoo, the prison island, and their press passes, cameras, and phones were confiscated, as a result of covering a protest organized by the opposition.
Private print media have expanded, and the sector’s coverage presents a fairly wide diversity of viewpoints. However, some publications are owned by allies of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or other political actors, who exercise considerable control over content. The number of private radio stations has increased to at least six, while the country’s first private television channels, DhiTV and VTV, began operating in 2008 and compete with the state-run Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation. Private outlets are authorized through individual agreements with the government rather than new broadcasting legislation, limiting their legal protections. Moreover, broadcasters remain subject to high annual licensing fees and must be relicensed every year. Most newspapers are not profitable and rely on financial backing from businessmen with strong political interests. Private media came under further financial pressure in September 2009, when the government began publishing its advertisements in the weekly official gazette instead of private media outlets.
The internet was accessed by about 34 percent of the population in 2011, and the number of web-based news outlets has greatly expanded. Opposition websites remained unblocked, but beginning in 2008, a number of websites have been blocked by the Communication Authority of the Maldives (CAM) at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, on the grounds that they could negatively affect belief in Islam. In December 2011, blogger Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed, one of the country’s most well-known journalists, was arrested for his involvement in a “silent protest” for religious tolerance. Rasheed’s arrest followed the blocking of his blog, hilath.com, by the CAM on the grounds that his site contained anti-Islamic material. Also that month, the editor of news website DhiIslam Daily, Ali Ahsan, was arrested after violent slogans calling for the murder of anti-Islamic activists were posted on his website, 23December.com. There is debate surrounding his responsibility for the hate messages posted.