Press freedom watchdogs slam Maldives

Major international press freedom watchdogs have recently slammed the Maldives for the Indian Ocean country’s bad record in press freedom.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) has criticized the Maldives for violations of press freedom in its 2007 annual report.

Information Minister, Mohamed Nasheed, who in May 2006 met members of an international mission of which Reporters Without Borders was a member, said the broadcast sector would shortly be liberalised and that laws to protect press freedom would be adopted before the end of the year. Unfortunately, the end of the state monopoly on radio and television has been postponed and the government had a draconian law on defamation adopted by decree. As a result, 38 requests made to the authorities to set up privately-owned radio and television stations have gone unanswered.

The government headed by the immovable Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been in power since 1978, has therefore failed to honour all its promises in relation to press freedom which were set out in the “road map” for democratic reform. Moreover, police continue to harass and sometimes imprison pro-opposition journalists.

English PEN has expressed concerns about state prosecutions against journalists working for Minivan Daily and Minivan News.

Minivan Daily journalist Fahala Saeed has been sentenced to life in April 2006 for drug-trafficking charges which is believed to have been fabricated. There are pending law suits against Minivan Daily editor Aminath Najeeb and sub-editor Nazim Sattar. Cartoonist Ahmed Abbas is in jail for comments he made to Minivan Daily.

Freedom in the World 2007 report by Freedom House characterized Maldives as “not free” and outlines some of the problems faced by journalists.

The penal code bans speech or actions that could “arouse people against the government,” while a 1968 law prohibits speech considered libelous, inimical to Islam, or a threat to national security. The law also allows authorities to shut newspapers and sanction journalists for articles containing unfounded criticism of the government. Moreover, regulations make editors responsible for the content of material they publish.

The South Asia Press Commission (SAPC) has also criticized the Maldives for barriers to press freedom and has described the country “a journalists’ prison” in its 2006 annual report.

In January 2007 Phillip Wellman, an American journalist working for Minivan News, was forced to leave the Maldives and blacklisted for two years.

Will Jordan, who is a journalist for Minivan News, discusses in his blog the level of repression in the Maldives.

For example, the authorities have intercepted phone calls, text messages, emails and other forms of communication. There is little reason to believe they are not still doing so, and we all are forced to behave as if they are. Conversations in cafes, restaurants and other public places are rarely confidential. There are many informants and others with an unhealthy interest in your daily business. Day-to-day movements, like those of our journalist, Phillip Wellman, in the two days before he was expelled, are noted. As another foreign journalist, Hari Kunzru of the Guardian newspaper has observed, anonymity is not an option.

The people who journalists speak to are instilled with fear. Until now, nobody has ever really asked the average citizen for their opinion. It has never mattered before – at least not on the simple basis that, as a Maldivian, they should be allowed to have a say. It has only mattered on the basis that they might be causing trouble.

Strongly held opinions tend to lead to problems in the Maldives, so few people dare speak to journalists and even fewer let you publish their names. Notoriety leads to trouble.

Faced with immense international pressure, the government has eased its restrictions to some extent. Four years ago, the level of repression was so intense that four cyber-dissidents were arrested for a dissident Internet newsletter and three of them received life sentences. Three of them were later released, after an international outcry, while one person fled from police custody and sought asylum abroad. The detainees were not even given access to legal representation.

Critics believe government is talking about reform as part of a nicely packaged public relations exercise, while in reality the Maldives remains a prison for journalists.


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