The civil court has barred former staff of the now-defunct newspaper Haveeru from working at any other media organisation or media-related business until February 2018.
The order issued today by Judge Mohamed Haleem could force the closure of Mihaaru newspaper, which was set up in May by former Haveeru journalists who resigned en masse after the Maldives’ oldest newspaper was shut down amid an ownership dispute.
“If we continue, the home ministry can enforce the order and take back the operating license of Mihaaru. If we still continue we can be arrested and charged individually,” assistant editor Ali Naafiz told The Maldives Independent.
“We will jobless for the next two years. This is an absolute violation of our fundamental rights, our right to work anywhere we want. This is part of the government’s continuing crackdown on the press.”
A media outlet critical of the current administration, Channel News Maldives, was forced to shut down last month and a community news site, Addu Live, was blocked. Four journalists at the opposition-aligned Raajje TV are meanwhile standing trial.
The two-year ban on Mihaaru journalists was imposed in a final judgment delivered today on the Haveeru ownership dispute. It applies to all staff who were under contract with Haveeru’s parent company last February.
The judge invoked a maxim in Islamic jurisprudence on preventing damage to justify the ban.
He also ordered the home ministry, the broadcasting commission, and other state institutions to take action against former staff working at other media organisations within seven days upon request by the majority shareholders.
The judgment did not specify the nature of the punitive action.
Ismail Naseer, the editor of Mihaaru, said the newspaper’s staff are discussing how to proceed in the wake of the judgment.
“I don’t really understand this. The case of ownership has nothing to do with our staff. They had already resigned. Also, the contracts they signed did not include any such provisions,” he said. “Even before they can resign any day if they want to and go work at any media outlet they would like the very next day. I think this is an effort to stop Mihaaru.”
In a statement tonight, Mihaaru said: “The latest verdict by the civil court is in direct violation of fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constuon of Maldives. Barring anyone from working at a place of their choosing infringes on their right to employment.
“The Civil Court, in issuing its verdict, has once again overlooked the rights as well as the plight of more than 50 employees and their families. The Civil Court’s verdict effectively shuts down the operations of Mihaaru, the only newspaper in circulation.
“This is an act of aggression by the state against independent and free media in the Maldives, and is part of a much wider and unprecedented crackdown by the government on media freedom.”
Haveeru was shut down in April after its three new shareholders sued the paper’s founder, Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain, for a share of assets and profits for the past 35 years.
The lawsuit followed a controversial High Court ruling last year that split the paper’s ownership four ways. The appellate court awarded three former editorial staff a controlling stake based on a copy of a 1983 agreement.
Sources close to Zahir said the lawsuit was a politically motivated attempt to influence Haveeru’s editorial independence.
After the lawsuit was filed in February, Haleem ordered the paper on April 2 to involve Farooq Hassan, Ibrahim Rasheed Moosa, and Mohamed Naeem in its management, including a role in making of editorial decisions and financial transactions.
However, in lieu of involving the new shareholders, the Haveeru Media Group – owned by Zahir’s three children – closed the paper and took its website offline.
In today’s judgment, Haleem ordered the Haveeru Media Group and relevant state authorities to transfer the newspaper, its online version, archive, its printing press, and other business interests related to the brand to the majority shareholders.
He also ordered the registrar of companies to change the name of the Haveeru Media Group within seven days.
Zahir Hussain, chancellor of the Maldives National University and former education minister, was ordered to revive and continue the Haveeru newspaper, website, and printing press in accordance with the wishes of the majority shareholders.
The judge also ordered Zahir to audit Haveeru and to offer the other three owners their share.
The unprecedented ruling has sparked outrage among the public, with many arguing that the order contravenes the constitutional rights of former Haveeru employees.
“Every citizen has the right to engage in any employment or occupation,” states article 37(a) of the constitution.
The constitution also prohibits slavery and forced labour.
No matter what @haveeru has with their business, the shareholders, assets etc. the employees who have terminated contracts, should be free
— Shafee (@hshafee) July 3, 2016
Having a press pass in Maldives means you end up having even fewer rights than the rest of the citizens. https://t.co/loHOfy3iI1
— Hawwa Shakeela (@HawwaShakeela) July 3, 2016
Employees are not intellectual properties! They terminated their contracts lawfully and have every right to be employed at another company.
— Ijlaaz Rasheed (@IjLaaZ) July 3, 2016
Haveeru (the oldest broadsheet in Maldives) forced to shutdown. CNM, closed. Adduonline- closed @Mihaarunews next? Media freedom in Maldives
— Farah Didi (@FarahDidi) July 3, 2016
Maldives Courts acting as henchmen for a dictator devoid of popular or political support. https://t.co/TovaYOUXgv
— Eva Abdulla (@evattey) July 3, 2016
Additional reporting by Shafaa Hameed.