Some 183 Maldivian journalists have signed a historic petition urging 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 – submitted to the President’s Office, the People’s Majlis and the Supreme Court today – comes in the wake of the arrest of some 18 journalists from a protest last week.
It received support from newspapers across the political spectrum, including pro-government websites and opposition aligned outlets.
Journalists from Haveeru, Raajje TV, The Maldives Independent, Sun Online, Villa TV, Sangu TV, CNM, Dhuvas, Vaanuvaa, Vaguthu, Avas and Dhi TV signed the petition. Journalists at the state broadcaster Public Service Media were ordered not to sign the document, according to reporters there.
Mohamed Hamdhoon of Haveeru said: “This is an unprecedented petition as it is the first time that so many journalists are on the same page. So I hope that all the authorities will sit down with us for a discussion.
“The fourth pillar of democracy is the media and since this petition includes signatures from almost every media outlet within the fourth estate we are hoping that the authorities consider this as a strong petition and respond to us.”
The petition outlined nine demands, including a thorough inquiry into the abduction of The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, withdrawal of the defamation bill, and action to revive the Maldives’ oldest newspaper Haveeru, which remains closed amidst a bitter dispute over ownership.
“After years of attacks, including murder attempts and disappearances, Maldivian journalists are now facing a different kind of threat; action by courts and regulatory bodies and a defamation bill that if passed will be the death knell for press freedom in the Maldives,” said Zaheena Rasheed, the Editor at The Maldives Independent. “Restrictions on press freedom threaten the people’s right to be informed.”
The petition also called for the withdrawal of charges against 24 journalists arrested since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power. Three Raajje TV journalists are facing prosecution for obstructing police officers.
Journalists also expressed concern over the appointment of ruling party activists to the Maldives Broadcasting Commission and called for an impartial inquiry into pending complaints against Raajje TV and Sangu TV.
Majority leader Ahmed Nihan, who submitted the defamation bill, has signaled a willingness to amend it. Home Minister Umar Naseer has also pledged to bring changes to the bill.
Nihan’s bill prescribes hefty fines of between MVR50,000 (US$3,200) and MVR5 million (US$324,000) as penalties for violations. Offenders who fail to pay the court-imposed fine will face a one-year jail term.
Newspapers and websites that publish “defamatory content” may also have their licenses revoked.
In late March, ten senior journalists said in a statement that the proposed law “will prevent journalists and citizens from speaking out over serious accusations of corruption and the integrity of state officials.”
The move to criminalise defamation comes amid allegations that Yameen, cabinet ministers, and MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties were among the beneficiaries of an unprecedented corruption scandal involving the theft of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned tourism promotion company.