The broadcasting regulator has fined the country’s main cable television provider MVR500,000 (US$32,425) for rebroadcasting an Al Jazeera corruption exposé in September.
According to state media, the ‘Stealing Paradise’ documentary, which exposed systemic corruption, abuse of power and criminal activity at the highest level of government, was deemed to pose a threat to national security.
The Maldives Broadcasting Commission also ordered Medianet to issue a statement of apology, the Public Service Media reported. The fine was reportedly imposed on Tuesday but the commission has yet to make a formal announcement.
Medianet had decided not to block the documentary’s original broadcast on September 7 despite a warning by the commission of possible action under the widely condemned anti-defamation law, which criminalised speech or content deemed to be defamatory, anti-Islamic, in breach of social norms, or a threat to national security.
The Stealing Paradise documentary had sparked a frenzy of anticipation in the Maldives with ministers and MPs rushing to President Abdulla Yameen’s defence and launching a campaign to discredit Al Jazeera.
Stealing Paradise was based on new evidence gathered from three mobile phones of former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. It also featured secretly filmed confessions by three associates of Yameen’s jailed former deputy about delivering stolen cash to the president.
The government later dismissed the documentary as “defamatory and biased” and accused the Qatari network of advancing the opposition’s agenda.
The Maldives has since severed 33-year-old diplomatic relations with Qatar.
Earlier this month, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit won the prestigious Corruption Reporting Award for Stealing Paradise. The award was sponsored by Transparency International and handed out at the annual One World Media ceremony in the UK.
According to Al Jazeera, the government had hired a London-based legal and public relations firms “to try to suppress” the airing of the documentary.
Hours after Stealing Paradise was released online, the police raided the Maldives Independent office with a court warrant over an alleged coup plot. The documentary featured an interview with Zaheena Rasheed, the former editor of this publication, who was forced to go into exile.
Former Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim, who appeared in the documentary and spoke about losing his job in 2014 after uncovering corruption, also fled the country.
Al Jazeera’s investigative reporter Will Jordan meanwhile faced numerous death threats on social media. The state broadcaster PSM accused him of conspiring with the opposition to sabotage the Maldivian economy.
Jordan was the editor of the Maldives Independent (formerly Minivan News) in 2007.
Accepting the Corruption Reporting Award in London, Jordan dedicated the prize to Yameen Rasheed, a liberal blogger who was brutally murdered in Malé on April 23.
The fine slapped on Medianet last week was the fourth punitive action taken under the anti-defamation law.
In early March, the MBC slapped an MVR200,000 (US$13,000) fine on Raajje TV along with an MVR50,000 (US$3,240) fine on a journalist, which was followed a month later with an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine imposed on the opposition-aligned station for airing a speech at a rally that was deemed defamatory towards Yameen.
Both former journalists were working under First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim at the president’s re-election campaign office.
In December, the commission dismissed a complaint alleging defamation of former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed by the state broadcaster.
The Maldives is now ranked 117 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index, down from 112 the previous year.
Based on developments during the past year, RSF said the government continues to “persecute the independent media” and that many journalists have been the target of death threats from political parties, criminal gangs and religious extremists.