The trial of two journalists with the opposition aligned Raajje TV, on charges of obstructing police officers, began in Malé today.
State prosecutors claimed today that Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Naseer had attempted to block the arrest of a third journalist on November 2, during a bomb scare in the capital. If found guilty, they could be fined or imprisoned for a period up to four months.
Wisam is accused of grabbing a policeman from behind while Leevan is accused of trying to remove the officer’s hand from journalist Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, the station’s chief operating officer.
Wisam, Leevan and Fiyaz were arrested at the time, and reportedly beaten.
Presiding Judge Saeed Ibrahim gave the pair five days to appoint a lawyer and has scheduled a second hearing for May 10.
Meanwhile Fiyaz has said that the Prosecutor General’s office plans to prosecute him on charges of assaulting a police officer. But he has not been served summons to appear at court yet.
A fourth Raajje TV reporter, Adam Zareer, is also facing prosecution on charges of obstructing police officers during the station’s coverage of an anti-government protest on March 25 last year.
Wisam, who was arrested along with Zareer and held for five days, is also facing charges over the incident. The pair have been summoned to court on Sunday. The four Raajje TV staff are the first journalists to stand trial since the Maldives adopted a new democratic constitution in August 2008.
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 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. Both Wisam and Leevan were among the 18 arrested that day.
Wisam said in an oped 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 statement read.
Press freedom groups including Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and Washington-based National Press Club have expressed concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
The timing of the charges against the four journalists suggest that they are “retaliation for covering the government’s mounting crackdown on press freedom,” the CPJ said.
The group said in a statement that the authorities have “singled out Raajje TV staff for harassment repeatedly in recent years” referring to masked men setting fire to its’ offices in October 2013 and the near-fatal assault on then Raajje TV head Asward Waheed in February 2013.
“No one has been held accountable for the attacks, according to the broadcaster,” the CPJ noted.