US Ambassador to the Maldives Atul Keshap met this morning with some of the 18 journalists arrested Sunday from a sit-in protest outside the president’s office amidst mounting concern over declining press freedom in the Maldives.
The journalists were released last night after ten hours in custody with summons to appear for questioning at the police headquarters today. All 18 are due to face police interrogation from 4:00pm onward.
Keshap’s meeting with the journalists was his first appointment since arriving in the Maldives last night on his second official visit to the country.
— Amb Atul Keshap (@USAmbKeshap) April 4, 2016
Hugo Swire, UK Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has also called on the government to “ensure freedom of the press.”
— Hugo Swire (@HugoSwire) April 4, 2016
Shortly after the police crackdown on yesterday’s protest, German Ambassador to the Maldives, Jurgen Morhad, and Canadian High Commissioner Shelly Whiting expressed concern over the “arrests of peacefully demonstrating journalists.”
#Maldives welcoming news that journalists arrested while protesting today were released some time ago this evening
— Juergen Morhard (@JuergenMorhard) April 3, 2016
— Shelley Whiting (@shelley_whiting) April 3, 2016
Yesterday’s arrests were widely covered in international media. The journalists staged the sit-in protest to voice concerns over press freedom in the wake of a court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper and the police confirming that The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in August 2014.
Some 11 male and seven female journalists from three online papers and three private TV stations were detained on charges of resisting or obstructing law enforcement officers and obstructing administration of law or other government functions.
Both offences are class one misdemeanours that carry either a fine or a maximum jail term of one year.
The police said in a statement last night that the journalists were arrested for scaling barricades, gathering in the “green zone” where protests are prohibited, and disobeying orders.
When the crowd of about 40 journalists defied repeated orders to leave the restricted area, “the police used the minimum force proportionate to the situation and dispersed the participants of the gathering.”
However, the journalists were arrested outside the green zone after the police pushed them back behind barricades in front of the Velaanage office building. Video footage shows riot police officers pepper spraying, manhandling and shoving journalists.
Three journalists were treated at the ADK hospital after being pepper sprayed at close range. Raajje TV senior journalist Ahmed Muhsin was released last night after receiving treatment. He was hit in the abdomen, according to a medical report.
The police went on to say that yesterday’s gathering was staged outside the bounds of “press freedom and journalistic professionalism,” adding that such incidents could be prevented if the media regulatory bodies act responsibly.
Home Minister Umar Naseer meanwhile told local media yesterday that the journalists staged the protest to obtain damaging photographs for the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party ahead of a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting.
After issuing a list of demands to the government – including initiating all-party talks and releasing jailed politicians – the CMAG is due to review the Maldives’ progress this month.
But the Maldives Media Council came to the defence of the detained journalists at a press conference Sunday evening after an emergency meeting.
MMC President Mohamed Asif ‘Mondhu’ said the oversight body believes the protest was staged to raise legitimate concerns over press freedom, dismissing allegations that the journalists were subject to political influence.
Asif said the journalists should not have protested inside the green zone, but added that the journalists’ intention was clearly to express their concerns.
Both the MMC and the MDP condemned the police’s use of “disproportionate force” against the journalists.
“MDP notes with concern that the Yameen Government’s egregious abuse of press freedom has resulted in the Maldives falling to pre-2004 rankings in the world press freedom index,” the party said in a statement.
“This is a significant deterioration of the rights guaranteed under the Maldives’ constitution, and yet another disturbing sign of democracy in reverse in the country.”
The MDP also condemned the home minister’s remarks, “which appeared to condone the excessive force used by police and military against peaceful demonstrators, while stating that journalists were protesting on instructions of the MDP as a means to engineer photo opportunities to present to the [CMAG].”
The CMAG recommendations included “practical confidence-building measures that promote freedom and space for civil society” and prevention of “on going use of anti-terrorism or other legislation to stifle national political debate,” the statement added.
The MDP’s parliamentary group has also submitted a motion urging the independent institutions oversight committee to investigate threats to press freedom in the Maldives.