A second trial against opposition-aligned Raajje TV journalists began at the criminal court today, with reporters Mohamed Wisam and Adam Zareer pleading not guilty to charges of obstructing police officers.
State prosecutors told the court that the pair had defied police orders and crossed a barricade set up near the central bank building in Malé during an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
After Wisam and Zareer pleaded not guilty at separate hearings, the presiding judge Saeed Ibrahim gave the journalists five days to appoint defence lawyers.
If found guilty, they may be fined or sentenced to four months in prison.
The pair were arrested while covering the street protest and released after five days in police custody.
The Prosecutor General’s office had pressed charges against three journalists with the private TV station last week amid mounting concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
Wisam is facing a separate count of obstructing police duty along with fellow journalist Leevan Ali Naseer on charges of blocking the arrest of a third journalist during a bomb scare in the capital on November 2.
A fourth journalist, Raajje TV COO Hussain Fiyaz Moosa – who was arrested with Wisam and Leevan while covering the military’s attempts to defuse a bomb found near the presidential residence – said he is also facing charges of assaulting a police officer. The charge carries a four-year jail sentence.
At the first hearings of their trials last Thursday, Wisam was accused of grabbing a policeman from behind while Leevan was accused of trying to remove the officer’s hand from Fiyaz.
The three journalists had accused the police of beating them in custody.
Commenting on the charge raised at today’s hearing, Wisam told The Maldives Independent that he was arrested while trying to report on police officers taking Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof into custody during the March 25 protest.
“We were only doing our duty as journalists. We did not cause any harm and we I believe these charges against us is one of the many attempts to silence Raajje TV and Maldivian journalists,” he said.
The print media regulator, Maldives Media Council, had assured the journalists they would not be charged upon their release, he revealed.
“The body that should be protecting us is now staying silent when we are facing jail sentences just because we were trying to report the truth,” he said.
A small group of journalists gathered outside the criminal court building this morning in solidarity with Wisam and Zareer.
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 last 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 on April 3 from a sit-in protest outside the president’s office. Both Wisam and Leevan were among the 18 arrested that day.
Some 17 journalists were interrogated at the police headquarters the following day, but it is unclear whether the authorities intend to file charges.
Wisam said in an op-ed on Tuesday: “As someone who has been arrested four times, there is no one who knows as I do how police officers act during these situations. Should I start praising them now for fear of being prosecuted?”
Former president Mohamed Nasheed has called for the charges to be dropped, saying: “Journalists must be allowed to work without fear/intimidation.”
Raajje TV has meanwhile expressed “shock” and “disappointment” over the Prosecutor General’s decision to file criminal charges against its staff.
“The charges brought against all four journalists are baseless in its entirety, and thus, can only be justified as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to impede, harass, and psychologically torture Raajje TV journalists with the objective of stopping Raajje TV‘s independent broadcasts,” the station said in a statement last week.
Press freedom groups including Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and Washington-based National Press Club have also expressed concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.