Freedom of the Press
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Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
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Media conditions remained challenging in 2014 as journalists and outlets faced continued harassment and violence, including the August disappearance of Minivan News reporter Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, which was still unsolved at year’s end.
The 2008 constitution protects freedom of expression, but it also places restrictions on speech deemed “contrary to any tenet of Islam,” and the overall legal framework protecting free expression remains weak. While defamation was decriminalized in 2009, civil cases are still occasionally brought against journalists. In 2012, the parliament passed the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, which set out a number of limitations on journalists, including a requirement for accreditation by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), which regulates broadcast media. Watchdog groups have raised concerns about the Parliamentary Privileges Act, which the parliament passed in 2013 by overriding a presidential veto, on the grounds that parts of the law could undermine journalists’ constitutional right to protect sources.
In September 2014, the government dropped charges against Channel News Maldives (CNM) journalist Abdulla Haseen. He had been accused of obstructing police duties during a 2012 protest, but the charges were not filed until over two years later. The case marked the first criminal prosecution of a journalist since the adoption of the 2008 constitution. In a separate incident in February 2014, a journalist from the newspaper Haveeru was arrested for photographing plainclothes police officers, but he was released the same day without charge.
Freedom of information is recognized as a fundamental right in the constitution. In January 2014, the president ratified the Right to Information Act, which drew praise from activists for the strength and scope of its provisions. Implementation was proceeding on schedule by the time the law took effect in July.
In 2013, the MBC threatened to revoke the licenses of any outlet that broadcast information harmful to national security. Other decisions handed down by the body have sparked allegations of biased treatment. The Maldives Media Council (MMC), a statutory body consisting of eight media workers and seven members of the public, enforces a code of conduct for journalists and investigates public complaints against both print and broadcast outlets. Despite concerns regarding government influence over the MMC and lack of transparency in its elections process (the minister of information nominates the public candidates), the MMC has criticized government encroachments on media freedom, voiced support for opposition outlet Raajje TV, and filed a no-confidence motion against the MBC. 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 private media in a number of cases.
The government is often reluctant to cooperate with the press, and access to official sources can be circumscribed. In 2013, Raajje TV, the only opposition-aligned private television outlet, brought a lawsuit against the president’s office, alleging discriminatory treatment. A court ruled in the station’s favor, ordering the president to provide Raajje with access to official events, which the administration had repeatedly denied. A civil court ruling had similarly censured the national police service for refusing to cooperate with Raajje TV and barring it from press conferences and events, calling such actions unconstitutional. In May 2014, a new policy allowed journalists to use mobile phones and laptops to provide live updates from within the parliament for the first time.
Internet censorship is a growing concern. The Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) often blocks websites that are deemed anti-Islamic or pornographic by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. In 2012, in the first case of its kind, a criminal court granted police a warrant to obtain the personal information of a user accused of “violating Islamic principles” on a news website’s comment board.
Journalists and media outlets faced attacks and harassment throughout 2014, particularly regarding coverage of gang activities. In August, Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla was abducted at knifepoint outside his apartment. Religious extremist gangs were implicated in the abduction, and police made several arrests in the case. However, all suspects were subsequently released without charge. Rilwan remained missing at year’s end. The disappearance prompted a landmark solidarity movement by journalists and broadcasters, including a joint statement of condemnation from all Maldivian media outlets.
In September 2014, a security camera was violently removed from the Minivan News building and a rusty machete lodged in the door, in what was seen as a threat. In November, the administrator of an opposition-oriented Facebook page was abducted and beaten after posting photographs of those implicated in the Rilwan disappearance. At least 16 journalists faced death threats after reporting on gang-related street violence during the year. An analysis published by the MBC in 2014 found that 84 percent of journalists faced threats and nearly one-third of journalists self-censored due to threats. The MBC cited political parties and gangs as the main perpetrators of threats and intimidation.
Private print media present a fairly wide diversity of viewpoints, although news coverage has become more polarized since the 2012 change in government. Some publications are owned by allies of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or other key political actors, who exercise considerable control over content. Coverage by the state broadcaster, which assumed control of all government-owned media in 2012, ignores opposition voices and favors the ruling party. The number of private radio stations has increased in recent years, while several private television channels, including Raajje TV, DhiTV, and VTV, compete with the state-run broadcaster. 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 have been under significant financial pressure since 2009, when the government began publishing its advertisements in the weekly official gazette instead of private outlets. The internet was accessed by about 49 percent of the population in 2014; the number of web-based news outlets and social-media use have greatly expanded in the past several years.