Amid mounting concern over press freedom in the Maldives, a fourth journalist at the opposition-aligned Raajje TV is facing trial on a charge of obstructing law enforcement officers.
Adam Zareer, a videographer at the privately-owned station, was served summons yesterday to appear for a first hearing at the criminal court next Sunday. He is accused of obstructing police duty during an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
Zareer was arrested along with Raajje TV journalist Mohamed Wisam while covering the protest. The pair were released after five days in police custody.
The Prosecutor General’s office has also filed charges against Wisam in connection with the incident. He has been ordered to appear in court on Sunday, too. If convicted, the pair could be fined MVR12,000 or sentenced to six months in jail.
Wisam and fellow Raajje TV journalist Leevan Ali Naseer are also facing trial on separate charges of obstructing law enforcement officers while covering the police and military’s attempt to defuse a bomb found near the official presidential residence on November 2.
A first hearing in Wisam’s case has been scheduled for Thursday.
Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, Raajje TV’s chief operating officer – who was arrested with Wisam and Leevan on November 2 – was meanwhile charged with assaulting a police officer. He could face a jail term of up to four years.
The three journalists at the time accused the police of beating them in custody.
They have lodged a complaint with the watchdog Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, but they say the commission has not responded to the complaint yet.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has meanwhile called on the authorities to drop charges against the journalists.
“The timing of the criminal charges against Raajje TV’s staff suggests that they are retaliation for covering the government’s mounting crackdown on press freedom,” said CPJ’s Asia program senior research associate, Sumit Galhotra on Monday.
“Authorities’ continuing pressure on journalists in the Maldives threatens to undermine the country’s democracy.”
Citing its research, the CPJ said in a statement that the authorities have “singled out Raajje TV for harassment repeatedly in recent years,” referring to masked men setting fire to its offices in October 2013 and the near-fatal assault of then-Raajje TV news head Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed in February 2013.
“No one has been held accountable for the attacks, according to the broadcaster,” the CPJ noted.
If the charges are not dropped, the four Raajje TV staff would become the first journalists to stand trial since the Maldives adopted a new democratic constitution in August 2008.
In 2014, the Prosecutor General’s office had filed charges of obstructing police duty against CNMreporter Abdulla Haseen, who was also arrested from a protest. But the charges were later dropped.
The withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013 is among nine demands outlined in a petition submitted Sunday to the President’s Office, the People’s Majlis and the Supreme Court.
Signed by some 183 Maldivian journalists, the petition urged the authorities to tackle threats to press freedom, including the withdrawal of a bill criminalising defamation and ending impunity for crimes committed against the press.
The petition is part of a campaign launched by the Maldivian media following the arrest of some 18 journalists last week from a sit-in protest, which was prompted by the abduction of The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper, and the criminal court’s ban of reporters from four outlets.