The Maldives’ first private TV station DhiTV has been switched off moments ago. It’s last broadcast aired at midnight.
News of the closure was abruptly announced to staff on Wednesday afternoon, just a day after the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives dominated parliament approved a draconian law re-criminalising defamation.
DhiFM, a radio station affiliated with the TV station, DhiFM plus, and the Dhivehi Online website were also shut down.
A memo sent to staff at the radio and TV stations said that the network’s parent companies, Broadcasting Maldives and Maldives Media Company, do not believe the channels “can be run in a sustainable manner under the current circumstances.”
Staff were told they would be paid their full salaries for the next three months.
Midhath Adam, DhiTV’s CEO, declined to comment. But people briefed on the closure said the decision was linked to the defamation law. “It is no longer safe to practice journalism,” an informed source said.
The defamation bill has drawn widespread condemnation.
It allows fines up to MVR2million (US$130,000) and closure of media outlets found guilty of slander, breaching social norms, threatening to national security and against the tenets of Islam.
Failure to pay the fine can lead to a jail sentence of up to six months.
The United Nations, United States and human rights groups have urged President Abdulla Yameen to scrap the law. It is yet to be ratified.
David Kyle, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, warned that the bill jeopardises the right to freedom of expression in the country.
“Criminalising speech on such vague and broad grounds as set out in the bill is a direct attack on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the Maldives,” said Kaye. “The freedom of expression is a fundamental right and any restrictions on it must be a narrowly and objectively defined, not a matter of common routine.”
DhiTV is mostly owned by tourism tycoon Mohamed Moosa, known as Champa Uchu.
The station was known for airing upside down images of politicians, and has been accused of defamation by MPs and independent institutions, including the Anti Corruption Commission and the Elections Commission.
DhiTV and DhiFM responded to threat of action from the broadcast regulator by displaying an upside down picture of the chair of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, Mohamed Shaheeb.
In November 2012, the station’s CEO was summoned to a parliamentary committee after MPs complained that it had aired defamatory content.
Additional reporting by Shafaa Hameed