The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned a police raid of the Maldives Independent’s office in the wake of the online release of Al Jazeera’s Stealing Paradise.
“To raid a newspaper on the preposterous pretext that it was plotting a coup because its editor appeared in a documentary alleging corruption is a transparent attempt at intimidation,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
“The authorities should immediately stop all attempts to intimidate the press, and send a clear message to Maldives Independent editor Zaheena Rasheed that she can return home without fear of persecution.”
The raid came hours after the highly anticipated corruption exposé was posted online. A court warrant authorising the search alleged a conspiracy to overthrow the government, to sow discord, and to disrupt public order.
Rasheed had left the Maldives before the release of the documentary. In a campaign by ministers and lawmakers to discredit Al Jazeera ahead of its release, the government had warned of legal action against Maldivians who assisted the Qatari network’s award-winning investigative unit.
Appearing on the state broadcaster, MP Ahmed Nihan had said that Maldivians who gave information for the documentary must bear responsibility if they cannot prove in court the truth of their assertions.
“Action will be taken if they give false information to harm the Maldives, harm the government, and destroy the economy,” he warned. Legal action will also be taken against those who broadcast, rebroadcast, or report the same content in writing, he added.
The majority leader of parliament said the draconian anti-defamation law passed last month allows for such measures.
His threat was later reiterated by Home Minister Azleen Ahmed.
NGO Transparency Maldives, the local chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog, has also called on the government to cease the intimidation of individuals who gave information to Al Jazeera, stressing that “the right to express oneself in matters of national and individual importance is a constitutional right.”
All the Maldivians interviewed for the documentary are now overseas.
Faced with death threats and possible prosecution, former Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim relocated to Sri Lanka on the day the documentary was aired.
“I left Maldives because I don’t feel it’s safe for me to stay there,” he told the Maldives Independent.
At the airport, Niyaz was informed by immigration officers of orders to withhold his passport. However, he was allowed to board the midnight flight after he demanded to see a court order banning him from travelling overseas.
Niyaz was controversially sacked by the ruling party-dominated parliament in October 2014 after flagging the misuse of funds from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, which was later found to have been at the centre of an unprecedented corruption scandal involving the theft of US$80 million from state coffers.
He told Al Jazeera that Yameen ignored his concerns before the release of the first MMPRC special audit. Eleven members of his family received death threats after its publication, he said.
The documentary also showed a discussion between Adeeb and two Specialist Operations police officers in August 2014 about setting the audit office on fire.
“State-sponsored terrorism against its own people and institutions,” said Niyaz, when showed the text messages.
The opposition leaders featured in Stealing Paradise are meanwhile living in exile in the United Kingdom, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, former vice president and leader of the opposition coalition, and Ali Waheed, chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party.