Media council backtracks on defamation complaints

Media council backtracks on defamation complaints
May 25 15:52 2017

The Maldives Media Council has withdrawn letters sent to three media outlets in response to complaints filed about defaming the first lady.

The print and online media regulator had asked journalists from Raajje TV, VFP and Mihaaru to submit their defence to defamation complaints filed by the former chief communication officer at the president’s office.

The council cancelled the defamation probes after the president’s office denied filing any complaints.

The MMC was alerted about the articles by an email sent from the former chief communication officer’s official mail address, the council explained in a statement Monday night.

But Ali Khalid, who was sacked from the chief communication officer’s post earlier this month, told newspaper Mihaaru that he did not file any complaints either.

Khalid said he emailed links to some article at the request of the council. “I did not submit it as a complaint to take action or prosecute a media outlet,” he stressed.

An MMC member said the council decided not to pursue the cases after the president’s office officially denied filing any complaints in a letter sent on Monday.

Earlier this week, the council told VFP’s editor Ismail Rasheed to respond to several complaints about five articles deemed defamatory towards First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim. According to VFP, the articles concerned the distribution of medicine and influenza vaccine by the first lady’s office during a flu outbreak in March.

The opposition-aligned Raajje TV meanwhile reported Sunday that six of its journalists were told to submit their defence within seven days over reports and news articles published on Raajje.mv about the first lady.

Mihaaru and three of its journalists were also asked to respond in writing before June 1 to 14 defamation complaints concerning coverage about the first lady.

Media reports about the defamation complaints prompted Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s spokesman, to categorically deny filing any complaints. The first lady “believes journalists and media outlets should have the right to freedom of expression,” he tweeted.

According to documents shared with the media outlets, the complaints were filed by Ali Khalid on March 17.

Khalid was sacked for undisclosed reasons on May 7, a day after the ruling coalition’s heavy loss in the local council elections.

The controversial 2016 defamation law authorises the 15-member media council – comprised of eight members from media organisations and seven members of the public – to take action against print and online media.

According to regulations enacted under the law, media outlets can be fined between MVR50,000 (US$3,242) and MVR500,000 (US$32,400) for a first offence and up to MVR2 million (US$129,700) after the third offence.

Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the media outlet and a jail term of up to six months for the journalist.

The fine must be paid in full before the regulator’s decision could be appealed to a court.

MMC President Abdul Mueed Hassan was meanwhile sacked from his post at the housing ministry on Tuesday, a day after the controversy over the defamation complaints.

Mueed was serving as the chief architect at the ministry. He was among several employees transferred to the ministry’s land section after it took over responsibilities from the opposition-dominated Malé city council.

Mueed was elected the MMC’s president after the reconstituted council began its current term in December following the election of new members.

Speaking to the Maldives Independent at the time, Misbah Abbas from VFP, who was among the journalists elected to the MMC, criticised the composition of the council at a time when press freedom is under threat in the Maldives.

“Bringing in a columnist or an opinion writer and filling in the media council is not how it should be done,” he said.

“This is the council that is the most unfamiliar with the media landscape. With the former councils, everyone involved was prominent people in the media, journalists and editors. Now we don’t have that.”

A second newly-elected member told the Maldives Independent on the condition of anonymity that a majority of the new MMC members would be subject to outside influence.

“I think from the current membership, there are five or six people who can work independently for the betterment of the media industry and it is going to be difficult for them to work, with the Defamation Act and all of that,” he said.

Earlier this month, Raajje TV meanwhile paid an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine imposed by the broadcasting regulator for airing a speech that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.

The hefty fine came on the day the station paid an MVR200,000 (US$12,970) fine imposed in Marchin the first punitive action taken under the defamation law.

The Maldives Broadcasting Commission, which is authorised to take action against TV stations, has previously been accused of double standards after the appointment of Fathmath Zaina and Zeena Zahir in April 2016 by the ruling party-dominated parliament.

Both former journalists were working under First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim at the president’s re-election campaign office.

The re-criminalisation of defamation in August last year was widely condemned as the death knell for free speech and press freedom in the Maldives.