The civil court has reprimanded Attorney General Mohamed Anil for saying that a much-derided order barring former staff of newspaper Haveeru from working at any other media organisation for two years is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.
Anil’s remarks are “invalid, unlawful, and cannot be acted upon,” reads a civil court order issued this afternoon.
Citing article 77 of the Judicature Act, the court said all state institutions and officials must comply with the ruling unless it is delayed or overturned upon appeal.
Judge Mohamed Haleem had ordered the home ministry and the broadcasting commission yesterday to take action against former staff working at other media organisations within seven days upon request by the Haveeru News Agency’s majority shareholders.
After Haveeru was shut down amid an ownership dispute, the paper’s journalists and staff had quit en masse and launched the Mihaaru newspaper in mid-May.
Anil, also acting home minister at present, told Mihaaru that the government cannot enforce the order.
“As far as I can see this a civil case. So the defendant has the right for appeal. But as the home ministry is now involved, all I can tell you is that in light of the constitution and the laws, we cannot take any action against the staff even if they work for any other media organisation,” he was quoted as saying.
Mohamed Shaheeb, chair of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, also told the paper that its mandate is limited to regulating broadcasting stations.
“The job of media personnel and other such issues are individual matters. We don’t have the power to take action over such matters,” he said.
Shaheeb said he was baffled by the court order as it was not part of the regulator’s mandate, adding that the commission is seeking legal advice from the attorney general.
The civil court order caused an uproar on social media and the comment sections of news websites yesterday, with many arguing that it violates the constitutional rights of former Haveeru employees.
“Every citizen has the right to engage in any employment or occupation,” states article 37(a). The constitution also prohibits slavery and forced labour.
In a statement last night, Mihaaru said the court “has once again overlooked the rights as well as the plight of more than 50 employees and their families,” adding that the order “effectively shuts down the operations of Mihaaru, the only newspaper in circulation.”
It added: “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.”
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 standing trial.
Mihaaru meanwhile continued to publish news yesterday in defiance of the court order and all its staff reported for work today.
However, the second order has cast doubt on its future.
“If we continue, the home ministry can enforce the order and take back the operating license ofMihaaru. If we still continue we can be arrested and charged individually,” assistant editor Ali Naafiz told The Maldives Independent yesterday.
— Ali Naafiz (@naafix) July 4, 2016
— Ali Naafiz (@naafix) July 4, 2016
— Asiyath M Saeed (@asiyath) July 4, 2016
The two-year ban on Mihaaru journalists applies to all staff who were under contract with Haveeru’s parent company last February.
It was imposed in a final judgment on the Haveeru ownership dispute. However, the claimants had not sought an order against the former Haveeru staff.
After the High Court controversially split the paper’s ownership four ways last year, the 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 former editorial staff, who were granted a controlling stake based on a copy of a 1983 agreement, had also sought an order compelling Haveeru to involve them in editorial decisions and financial transactions.
Several lawyers meanwhile told Mihaaru on the condition of anonymity yesterday that the civil court order is unprecedented as the staff were not a party to the lawsuit.
The employment contracts with Haveeru did not stipulate that staff cannot work at other media organisations after resigning from the paper, they noted.
Former High Court Judge Abbas Shareef also criticised the civil court judgment in a Facebook post last night.
Shareef, who retired last year, said the former Haveeru staff’s right to work could only be restricted by an act of parliament or based on a provision of the employment contracts.
“I don’t believe that a court of law has the authority to do so under any other circumstances,” he wrote.