Deputy Home Minister Ahmed Siddeeq has labeled several journalists arrested from a sit-in protest Sunday “criminal offenders” while international organisations have condemned the mass arrests as symptomatic of declining press freedom in the Maldives.
Siddeeq posted a tweet this morning with a photo of the demonstration outside the president’s office. He circled out eight journalists and scrawled, “These are not journalists. They are criminal offenders.”
Varah rangalhu vaahaka eh noosverin nama idhikolhu siyaasee muzaahiraa eh nukuraane. Pass othus noosverin neh noon pic.twitter.com/nII1WgjUiQ
— Siddeeq (@AhmedSiddeeq) April 5, 2016
The journalists singled out by the deputy minister include The Maldives Independent editor Zaheena Rasheed, Sangu TV Managing Director Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed, Raajje TV reporters Murshid Abdul Hakeem and Mohamed Wisham, and Haveeru senior journalists Fazeena Ahmed – winner of the inaugural “Journalist of the Year” award in 2014 – and Ali Nafiz.
Home Minister Umar Naseer has meanwhile invited the Maldives Media Council – which regulates print and online media – to share concerns over press freedom. He told Sun Online that President Abdulla Yameen’s government would not obstruct press freedom and pledged to address grievances.
Maldivian journalists had staged Sunday’s sit-in protest 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.
A consensus has also emerged among the Maldivian media that the enactment of the ‘defamation and freedom of expression’ bill currently before parliament will be the death knell of press freedom in the country.
Some 18 journalists from three online papers and three private TV stations were arrested after police cracked down on the protest with pepper spray, and 17 were held for over ten hours. The 17 were summoned for questioning at the police headquarters yesterday in relation to charges of obstructing law enforcement officers and obstructing administration of law or other government functions.
It is not clear if they will be charged.
The Human Rights Commission of Maldives is meanwhile investigating alleged mistreatment of the journalists in police custody. All 17 journalists, including seven young women, were strip-searched, some twice, in what they say was a deliberate attempt by police officers to humiliate them.
They also highlighted unsanitary conditions at the Atholhuvehi detention centre, including cells infested with rats and walls covered in graffiti drawn with toothpaste.
News of the strip-search sparked outrage but also elicited hate speech from ruling party activists on social media. Several abusive comments were also posted on pro-government news websites.
One anonymous Twitter user promoting President Abdulla Yameen suggested that the police should have “raped” the female journalists after undressing them.
“Kill the journalists, burn the journalists, hang the journalists,” tweeted another government supporter.
— Ali Shamin (@ali_shamin) April 4, 2016
For a strip search 2 be lawful there must be REASONABLE suspicion dat detainee’s in possession of unlawful material pic.twitter.com/RUAkdvEHHb
— Dhiyana (@dhiyanasaid) April 5, 2016
Apparently this guy’s a cop and he ( as in MV police ) is the victim here. Hats off to your language BTW! pic.twitter.com/VNGKxpaLru
— Ughhhhhhhhhh (@ferrthun) April 4, 2016
Been strip searched isn’t a laughing matter. I felt so violated. I can understand the humiliation my fellow female jornous went through.
— Ali Naafiz (@naafix) April 4, 2016
While the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and the Maldives Media Council condemned the police’s use of “disproportionate force” against the journalists, diplomats from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada expressed concern over the “arrests of peacefully demonstrating journalists.”
Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Transparency Maldives joined the chorus of concern yesterday.
“The series of draconian measures and the repressive actions directly targeting journalists clearly show that this is not a democratic government that accepts the media’s watchdog role,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to put an immediate end to the authoritarian offensive on which he has embarked.”
In November, the NGO warned the authorities against any attempts to gag broadcast and online media and condemned a series of attacks on journalists, TV channels and news websites.
Amnesty International called Sunday’s mass arrest of journalists “a dangerous assault on freedom of expression and the media.”
“The arrest of the journalists comes amidst a wider, worrying trend where the space for the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in Maldives is shrinking, especially for criticism of the government and perceived social or religious norms,” the international human rights organisation said in a statement.
The local chapter of Transparency International meanwhile observed that “media conditions continue to deteriorate with numerous incidents of harassment and violence against journalists reported, compounded with a host of legal restrictions placed on press freedom.”
Transparency Maldives called on the government to uphold its obligations under international rights conventions and “immediately withdraw the Defamation Bill from the parliament and open up space for press freedom in the Maldives as enshrined in Article 28 of the Maldivian constitution.”