Police defend blocking silent march for press freedom

Police defend blocking silent march for press freedom
April 09 18:09 2016

The police have defended blocking a silent march organised by journalists Friday afternoon in Malé to raise concerns over threats to press freedom in the Maldives.

The journalists were not allowed to march as closing down the capital’s main thoroughfare would have caused traffic jams and posed difficulties to pedestrians and businesses, the police said in a statement last night.

Despite blocking the walk, the police gave the journalists “the opportunity to raise their voices and took measures for the safety of the participants of the march.”

About 50 journalists – representing almost all private media outlets in the country – gathered at the artificial beach around 4:30pm and were greeted with a heavy police presence. Three police vans and dozens of riot police officers were on alert in the area.

Police officers first blocked the walk at the eastern end of Majeedhee Magu, but allowed the journalists to walk up to barricades placed near the Henveiru stadium.

The journalists accused the police of violating their right to freedom of assembly, which is guaranteed in the constitution “without prior permission of the state.” The police had informed journalists a day before that the march will not be allowed to go ahead.

Thwarted by the police, the journalists staged a sit-in protest behind the barricades. Using a megaphone, several senior journalists voiced concerns over press freedom.

After reading out a petition prepared for submission to the government and state authorities on Sunday, the protest was ended around 6pm.

The silent march was part of a campaign launched by the Maldivian media last week with a sit-in protest outside the president’s office. Some 18 journalists were arrested in a police crackdown and released 10 hours.

The campaign was prompted by the prosecution of Raajje TV journalists, the abduction of The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper, the criminal court’s ban of reporters from four outlets and the appointment of President Abdulla Yameen’s campaign workers to the broadcasting regulator.

A consensus has meanwhile emerged among the media that journalism as a profession would cease to exist in the Maldives if government-sponsored legislation on criminalising defamation is passed into law.

The Maldives has plummeted on the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index during the past four years.

In February 2013, former Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death, while the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October that year.

Two years after the arson attack, only one of 18 suspects was charged.

A trial over a near-fatal attack on Asward remains stalled at the criminal court. Asward, who now heads Sangu TV, was also among the 18 journalists taken into custody on Sunday.

Charges were also never filed against a man who vandalised The Maldives Independent’s security cameras last year. The alleged gang leader was released by the criminal court despite video footageshowing him stealing a CCTV camera.