Raajje TV sets up ‘defamation fund’ after hefty fines

Raajje TV sets up ‘defamation fund’ after hefty fines
March 12 18:41 2017

Raajje TV has set up a “defamation fund” after the broadcasting regulator slapped an MVR200,000 (US$13,000) fine on the opposition-aligned station and an MVR50,000 (US$3,200) fine on a journalist last week.

Simana Ismail, Raajje TV’s development manager, told the Maldives Independent that the station launched the fundraising drive because it is unable to pay the fines.

“We are a stand-alone station. We run with the help of sponsors. After expenses, we do not have much and not nearly enough to pay the fines. So we needed some extra help,” she said.  

The hefty fines were the first punitive action taken under the controversial 2016 defamation law. Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the station and a jail term of up to six months for the former Raajje TV journalist Aala Ibrahim.

The fund box placed inside the station’s studios in Malé is almost full, Simana said.

Opposition supporters have also set up fund boxes on several islands, including the island of Hinnavaru in Lhaviyani atoll where a fishing trip was organised on Sunday to raise funds.

Simana said Raajje TV fears the Maldives Broadcasting Commission could impose further fines by the end of the month.

Speaking at the launching of the fundraising drive on Friday, Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, Raajje TV’s chief operating officer, alleged that the fines are part of the government’s efforts to force the station to shut down.

“We have learned from a reliable source that Raajje TV will be fined by MVR800,000 [US$51,880] over another case currently before the broadcasting commission,” he said.

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

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

The MBC is authorised to investigate complaints and impose fines against broadcasters whilst the Maldives Media Council, comprised of members elected by journalists, can take action against print and online media.

The seven-member broadcasting commission 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.

In December, the commission dismissed a complaint alleging defamation of former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed by the state broadcaster.

The passage of the anti-defamation law led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV, and journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits.

The re-criminalisation of defamation was widely condemned as an attack on free speech. A consensus emerged among the Maldivian media that the law would be the death knell of press freedom in the country.

Three Raajje TV journalists have also been found guilty of obstructing police duty during the past two months. They became the first journalists to be convicted in the Maldives in more than a decade.

Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Nasir were handed a fine of US$1,868 each in January and cameraman Adam Zareer was handed a fine of US$195 last month.

Wisam is awaiting sentencing on March 28 on his second count of obstruction. The station’s COO, Fiyaz, is also on trial on a charge of assaulting a police officer in November 2015. He faces a jail term of more than a month if found guilty.

The prosecution of the journalists stand in stark contrast to the lack of justice for crimes committed against the press, including the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the arson attack on Raajje TV, and the near-fatal beating of the station’s former news head.

The Maldives is now ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.