I had been in the Criminal Court’s reception area for almost two hours, waiting for a trial that had been scheduled for the morning, and was relieved when officials took me into the courtroom’s security area.
But moments later I was told to wait outside again. After about 15 minutes I was taken back into the security area.
“Do you know why you were told to wait outside?” one of the officials asked me. I said no because I had no idea what was happening.
“Your clothing is disrespectful to the court. So we cannot allow you to cover the trial,” he told me.
I was shocked and a little confused. “How can this be? I wore the same dress to court yesterday and there weren’t any problems. I’ve worn this to court so many times before!”
Court reporting is hard in the Maldives but not because of the trials. Some journalists even describe courts as “the most difficult place for reporting.”
It’s the human interest element that draws me to court reporting because trials reveal the emotions of everyone in the room: those in the dock, their supporters and their accusers. Even the rich and powerful, like former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or a wealthy tycoon like Gasim Ibrahim, appear vulnerable and humanised.
Getting into court – and staying there – involves changeable dress codes, bans, early registration, hours of waiting and the threat of last-minute trial cancellations.
The rules apply to reporters and also the public.
Men must wear closed shoes. But women can wear sandals. Short sleeves are fine for men. But not for women. Men must wear shirts with collars. Reporters cannot take their own writing material into a courtroom. Pens are given out at Criminal Court. But the Supreme Court hands out pencils. Cameras, phones and recording devices are banned. These rules – with the exception of the electronic device ban – can change on the spot.
One reporter said she used to her wear her mother’s clothes – because they were loose-fitting – to avoid being kicked out. A male reporter says he has slipped into court wearing sandals, while another has been turned away for his footwear.
Journalists are told to register at least half an hour early for hearings but sometimes registering just half an hour before a trial can be too late.
– Eyes and ears –
There is a sinister side to the gauntlet of dress codes and timekeeping.
Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public, reporting on crimes alleged to have been committed by ordinary citizens and high-profile figures. Putting up barriers makes it harder for the media to hold the judiciary and the state to account.
Misbah Abbas, a former court reporter for Channel News Maldives, told the Maldives Independent the courts do not have set codes for reporters or the public.
“They would have different procedures for different days. Sometimes they will provide us [reporters] with paper and pen. But on other days, we might have to take our own writing materials.
“Later they made a rule to force reporters to wear press cards around their neck at all times while inside the court,” he said.
Nazim Hassan, a court reporter for Avas, describes it as a measure to send reporters away.
“Even if we have the press card in our wallet, but do not have a cord to wear it around our neck, we are sent away. They do this even to reporters who they see in court everyday.”
Misbah and Nazim emphasise the attitude of court staff “who strictly follow orders that come from above.”
The court’s dress code has been problematic for female reporters, with many booted off the premises for wearing formal attire or clothes that do not cover their hips or arms.
Shafaa Hameed, a former court reporter for the Maldives Independent, said female reporters are treated differently.
“The official would take a long look from head to toe and the dress code would vary according to which official is on duty.”
She also said that reporters are “targeted, discriminated against and treated rudely” based on which news outlet they work for.
Some reporters who spoke with the Maldives Independent wished to remain anonymous as they fear reprisal for openly criticising the courts.
– ‘Punctuality problems’ –
The ruling party is cracking down further on reporters, by trying to penalise them. It wants it to be illegal to portray a court as lacking the capacity to rule independently.
One reporter, who did not want to be named, said the “courts have punctuality problems.”
“We go to court first thing in the morning to register, but hearings will usually begin after a two-hour delay.”
Reporters also believe that last-minute cancellation of trials and holding secret trials affect “their right to, transparently and without error, inform the public about what happens in the courtroom.”
They also say trial cancellations and secret hearings have risen in recent years.
A media official at the Criminal Court was contacted for statistics regarding trial cancellation rates, but no one was able to comment. However a court official asked for a letter that requested this information.
“It was either a trial for Rilwan [the missing Maldives Independent journalist] or Yameen [the murdered blogger]. We were waiting when a court worker came and told us that the trial had already begun.
“This happened frequently during that month so I wrote about it. Then the court said they were looking into a contempt case against us [Avas], but fortunately no action was taken,” Nazim said.
Maldives Independent journalists have also faced similar obstacles while trying to access trials of people charged with attempting to go abroad to join a war.
Misbah, who now works at VFP, said the constitution, laws and rules require courts to close trials only with a valid reason such as “threat to national security.”
“They [courts] used to ban entire news organizations for contempt when we reported on these things. There was a time when CNM and Raajje TV were banned all the time,” he said.
Last year Mihaaru reporters were barred from court after the newspaper’s editor was summoned by police over reports that criticised the justice system.
Misbah also recalled an incident when a reporter from Haveeru News, which was forced to shut down in 2016, “was threatened because he might write about a trial in the Supreme Court.”
Aiman Rasheed, from Transparency Maldives, criticised arbitrary court processes that “negatively affect the right to equality before the law.”
Although I was initially prevented from going into the trial of a man charged with travelling abroad to fight in a war, officials finally agreed to allow me into the courtroom after I challenged their inconsistent dress code.
But the judge had started and already finished the hearing while I was waiting in the security area – and I walked back to the office empty-handed.