On August 13, a 59-year-old man disappeared on a rural island nearly 40 miles south of Malé. The police called it a missing person case. That afternoon, at an editorial meeting at Villa TV, journalists found themselves in a fix. Could the private broadcaster name the missing man without provoking defamation charges?
“Under the new law, we cannot report his name without his permission,” an editor who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “The news we carried that afternoon was short. A person is missing, the police are searching.”
The widely condemned law, in sweeping and vague terms, criminalises content that is defamatory, breaches social norms and Islamic tenets, and threatens national security.
Editors felt the missing man could sue for defamation if his ‘disappearance’ turned out to be voluntary and not the result of a criminal act. This could lead to a penalty of up to MVR2million (US$130,000), and failure to pay the fine would result in a six-month jail term, and worse, closure of the news outlet.
The Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act was introduced to the parliament in March, shortly after a damning audit report revealed the theft of atleast US$80million from state coffers by senior government officials. The law has not only reduced reporting on allegations of President Abdulla Yameen’s involvement in the historic scandal; it has forced newsrooms across the Maldives into a huddle to rethink their approach to journalism, even when it comes to reporting on the simple case of a missing man.
VTV now displays a disclaimer on its regular news broadcasts.
At Raajje TV, an opposition aligned broadcaster, editors have resorted to self-censorship to avoid defamation lawsuits. The station is airing rallies and protests with a delay of up to two minutes, in case some parts need to be beeped out.
“Opposition leaders are known to use words like thief to describe the president. We can’t air these words,” said Abdulla Mohamed, a prime-time news presenter. “In other programmes featuring opposition leaders, we have told our journalists to control the guests.”
Documentaries that may cast government officials in a bad light have come to a halt, too. The station has halted production of a feature on the 2013 murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali, a killing that opposition figures and former government officials claim involved Yameen. The president has denied the allegation. Another documentary, featuring a Sri Lankan man who claims he used black magic to help the president win the 2013 election has also been axed.
“It’s not that we are afraid,” said Mohamed. “We don’t want to give them room to shut us down.”
At Sangu TV, a channel owned by a ruling party MP, editors are on guard. But they say they may be courting trouble every time they show an opposition-led protest.
“We have limited resources and can’t afford the technology that allows for the broadcast feed to be delayed. Under this bill, all it takes is a person to call and ask us to stop the live feed,” says Ahmed Mohamed, deputy news editor.
Mohamed cites the example of a popular video the channel editors had made, featuring clips of police beating up protestors on the streets of Malé. The clips were combined and set it to the tunes of the popular song ‘Who let the dogs out?’ Other such fillers include clips of Yameen’s public appearances, set to the tunes of a Bollywood song of heartbreak.
“We cannot air such videos anymore,” he said.
The only channel that appears unruffled from the changes is Television Maldives or TVM, operated by the state broadcaster, the Public Service Media.
“TVM is a government mouthpiece,” a senior editor with the organization said. “Even if we might not think like them, we can’t speak out openly against it or there will be disciplinary measures.”
In the days leading up to the vote on the defamation bill, the network was told to defend it on religious grounds.
“We had several panel discussions and featured pro-government lawyers and MPs. The brief was that there needs to be some restraint on these fundamental freedoms,” he said. “When you use religion to promote something, people will easily believe you.”
Hours after the law was enforced, the channel showed a two-minute news package criticising a tweet by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had previously urged ruling-party lawmakers to vote against the bill.
The report, that raised questions about the sanity of the 78-year-old former president and accused him of working with the exiled opposition leader, former President Mohamed Nasheed, came as a shock and was immediately termed derogatory.
“This might have been a bait for the opposition to use the law to its advantage,” said the TVM editor. “This might give them room to accuse the opposition of double standards.”
The controversy, however, has died down with the opposition refusing to press charges. However, some have raised concerns that this would only lead to the broadcaster airing more anti-opposition features.
The defamation law does not deter TVM, the editor said.
“We are funded by the taxpayer. Even if penalized, the money will go straight to the government. It will be business as usual.”