Three foreign journalists who arrived last Tuesday on an invitation from the government were threatened with deportation for seeking to enter the country without undergoing a mandatory vetting process.
A deputy editor from Climate Home, a writer from The New Scientist and a freelancer from The Guardian were held at the Velana International Airport for three hours after immigration officials learned that they were journalists.
The all-expenses-paid trip was organised on behalf of the government by London-based PR agency BTP Advisers to seek coverage on environmental issues, according to Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, the international spokesman at the president’s office.
“The journalists were here on our invitation and they spoke with various government officials and experts regarding the environment and related issues. They also spoke with members of the public and NGOs,” he said.
Megan Darby from the London-based Climate Home told the Maldives Independent that immigration officials threatened to deport her.
“To travel to the Maldives on a government invitation and then be threatened with deportation was frustrating, to say the least,” she said.
According to Megan, the journalists were allowed to enter after Shihab came to the airport.
“The organisers were very apologetic about the communication breakdown and I went on to have a fascinating trip,” she said.
Megan said that her ordeal does not send a “welcoming message” to foreign journalists. “I hope the administration will continue to open up to international journalists,” she added.
Shihab confirmed that the journalists were held up, “but we worked with immigration to clear up any misunderstandings and since there was a delay at immigration I met the journalists at the airport to greet them and apologise for the incident.”
Rigorous new rules requiring background checks for foreign journalists came into force in January in the wake of an Al Jazeera documentary that exposed corruption and criminal activity at the highest levels of government.
The immigration department’s spokesman told the Maldives Independent that foreign journalists would need to undergo a vetting process in addition to applying for a business visa, which requires a Maldivian sponsor.
Ahead of arrival, journalists must submit bank statements dating back six months, a three-month medical report, and a one-year police report to show they have no criminal record.
Megan said she submitted the paperwork weeks in advance but the trip was postponed twice due to delays in approving the business visa.
After the three-hour hold up, she was allowed to enter on a tourist visa. During their stay, the journalists interviewed ministers and went on trips arranged by the government.
However, the government has deported tourists on suspicion of “practising journalism” after entering the country on tourist visas. Most recently, a German tourist who was accused of photographing a raid on the opposition meeting hall in Malé was arrested and handed over to the immigration department.
But Raajje TV reported that the tourist did not take photographs. An eyewitness said he was walking past the meeting hall with his camera.
Two tourists were also arrested and deported in July last year for photographing an opposition rally. In December 2015, a four-member TV crew German public broadcaster ARD was deported for filming without a permit.
The immigration department’s spokesman was unable to confirm whether the foreign journalists entered on tourist visas last week.
A journalist from the Wall Street Journalist also arrived separately from the three who were held up at the airport. It is unclear whether he was granted a business or tourist visa.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated “Ibrahim Hussein Shihab, the international spokesman of the president’s office.” It has been corrected to “Hussain” and spokesman “at the” president’s office after Shihab informed the Maldives Independent of the correct spelling and official designation.