Three journalists with the opposition-aligned Raajje TV, including the station’s chief operating officer, are facing trial on charges of obstructing law enforcement officers.
Journalist Mohamed Wisam was handed summons today to appear for hearings on April 14 and 17 on separate charges, while Raajje TV COO Mohamed Fiyaz Moosa and journalist Leevan Ali Naseer have been asked to pick up their summons from the criminal court on Sunday.
The three were arrested on November 2 while reporting on the police and military’s attempts to defuse a bomb found near the presidential palace.
The second case Wisam is facing prosecution relates to his arrest along with a Raajje TV cameraman and Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof from an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
According to Wisam’s summons chit, one case was filed on March 17 and a hearing has been scheduled for 11am on April 14. The second case was filed on April 5 with a hearing been scheduled for April 17 at 10:00am. Wisam is accused in both cases of obstructing police duty.
Mahloof, a former ruling party MP who is already standing trial on a separate charge of obstructing police duty, was ordered to appear for a hearing on April 25.
The prosecution of the three is the second instance journalists have been put on trial since 2008. In 2014, the prosecutor general filed charges of obstructing police duty against CNM reporter Abdulla Haseen, who was also arrested from a protest. The charges were later dropped.
The unprecedented prosecution also comes amidst a campaign launched by the Maldivian media against a government crackdown on press freedom in the country.
Wisam and Leevan were also among 18 journalists arrested Sunday from a sit-in protest outside the president’s office. The journalists from six mainstream media outlets were released 10 hours later and interrogated by the police the following day on charges of obstructing law enforcement officers.
The sit-in protest was prompted by the submission of government-sponsored legislation to criminalise defamation and restrict free speech, a court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper, and the police confirming that The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in August 2014.
Other concerns include the criminal court’s ban of reporters from four outlets and the appointment of President Abdulla Yameen’s campaign workers to the broadcasting regulator.
The Maldives has plummeted on the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index during the past four years. In 2014, numerous death threats were sent to journalists, journalist Ahmed Rilwan was abducted, and a machete was buried at the door of the The Maldives Independent (formerly Minivan News) office.
While police assured thorough investigations in each case, charges have not been raised against any suspects to date.
In November last year, Raajje TV suspended current affairs coverage following the brief detention of a fourth journalist and warnings from the the media regulatory body of revoking the licenses of stations that air content deemed to endanger national security.
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.
An inquiry by a police watchdog found Raajje TV staff had asked for police protection when they learned of the imminent attack, but police officers had failed to respond. The now-defunct Police Integrity Commission had recommended pressing criminal charges against two policemen.
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 footage showing him stealing a CCTV camera.