Home Minister Umar Naseer ordered the telecoms regulator to block access to regional news website, AdduLive, because it was unregistered, a spokeswoman has said.
The southern Addu City based news site is the first media outlet to be blocked in recent history, and comes amidst an unprecedented crackdown on press freedom in the Maldives.
Hinna Khalid, the home ministry spokeswoman, said in a text message: “AdduLive was blocked on the minister’s instruction as the minister saw it was operating outside the mainstream media without registering.”
Critics have condemned the move as an attack on free speech, noting it has implications for bloggers and other content posted online. Maldivian law does not require registration of news sites. Registration of media outlets is required by on a 2007 regulation.
AdduLive staff claim the block was prompted by an April 19 article linking First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim to corruption. It came after an unnamed individual filed a complaint over the article at the print and media regulator, the Maldives Media Council.
Mohamed ‘Mondhu’ Asif, the president of the MMC, said the council had forwarded the complaint to the home ministry, as it did not have the mandate to look into complaints relating to unregistered news sites.
AdduLive began publishing in January 2013.
The Communications Authority of the Maldives blocked the site on Thursday, without warning, according to the site.
Asif, a veteran journalist, said blocking unregistered sites is “unsustainable.”
“I mean if they block one website, there will be another anonymous ones that comes up. I would advise the government to resolve these matters by consulting the concerned parties, transparently,” he said.
Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, a senior journalist and the chair of press freedom group, the Media Development Foundation, said free speech could only be curtailed if it violates a tenet of Islam.
“I do not see how the home ministry could block a site if the content does not contradict Islam. This move has serious implications, it means that even government offices that publish news regularly must register with the home ministry. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Zahir has previously said punitive action against media outlets would lead to a proliferation of anonymous websites.
Ibrahim Riffath, a civil rights lawyer, meanwhile questioned why the home ministry had failed to ban AdduLive when it first began publishing.
“Blocking such a website means fundamental rights that are guaranteed by the constitution have been withheld based on a mere formality, such as the lack of registration. They could have given the paper time to register.”
The block on AdduLive is not isolated, but part of a concerted effort to silence the press, he said. “It is a serious concern that the government uses its powers in the most unjust way possible. In this case, it is not just about a single website being blocked.”
In October last year, AdduLive was hacked after its journalists received threatening phone calls demanding the removal of articles on corruption of judges and news items critical of the government.
The article that appears to have caused offence this time round relates to a complaint lodged at the Anti-Corruption Commission alleging that First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim was bribed for a rice import contract with the state wholesaler, State Trading Organisation.
The article was titled ‘Madam Fathun was bribed for rice import contract,’ and published with a photo of the first lady with senior officials from the STO. The article claimed a company called MM Exports was awarded a contract for importing 12,000 tonnes of rice without an open bidding process.
Muaviz Rasheed, the ACC vice president, confirmed today that they had previously received complaints relating to MM Exports, but was unable to state if the complaint involved the first lady.
The Maldives Independent was not able to contact the first lady’s office at the time of going to press.