The broadcasting regulator has slapped an MVR200,000 (US$13,000) fine on the opposition-aligned Raajje TV and an MVR50,000 (US$3,200) fine on a journalist in the first punitive action taken under the controversial 2016 defamation law.
Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the station and a jail term of up to six months for the former Raajje TV journalist Aala Ibrahim.
According to a statement issued Tuesday afternoon by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, a social worker from Addu City complained that a rape victim’s family had accused her on Raajje TV of trying to cover up the rape and influence the police investigation.
The station named Fasohath Hussain in three news bulletins on November 19 without contacting her, which “adversely affected” the social worker and her family, the MBC said.
As a social worker, Fasohath has to interact with many families, it noted.
Citing article 10 of the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, the regulator concluded that the Raajje TV broadcast was slanderous as it damaged her reputation and character.
According to regulations enacted under the law, media outlets can be fined between MVR50,000 and MVR500,000 (US$32,400) for a first offence and up to MVR2 million (US$129,700) after the third offence.
The fine must be paid in full before the regulator’s decision could be appealed before a court.
Speaking to the Maldives Independent, Ali Yoosuf, Raajje TV’s news director, insisted that the station contacted the people involved for the story.
“We believe all necessary information was cleared up in bringing the news to the public,” he said.
“Raajje TV responded in its defence during the opportunity it was given when the case was being investigated by broadcom [broadcasting commission] and the station’s management is now in discussion regarding the next steps of the station, whether we would be going to court. We also have the chance to appeal broadcom’s ruling.”
The fine is a calculated attempt to gag the station, he contended.
“We condemn the decision by broadcom and other government agencies to constantly persecute our journalists, impose fines on our station and restrict our reporting while complaints by Raajje TV remain unaddressed, and matters regarding the arson attack on our station are still unsolved,” Yoosuf said.
“We believe this ruling sets journalism back several years and is a tactic to intimidate journalists.”
The MBC is authorised to investigate complaints and impose fines against broadcasters whilst the Maldives Media Council, comprised of members elected by journalists, can take action against print and online media.
The seven-member broadcasting commission has previously been accused of double standards after the appointment of Fathmath Zaina and Zeena Zahir in April 2016 by the ruling party-dominated parliament. Both former journalists were working under First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim at the president’s re-election campaign office.
In December, the commission dismissed a complaint alleging defamation of former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed by the state broadcaster.
The passage of the anti-defamation law had led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV, and journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits.
The re-criminalisation of defamation was widely condemned as an attack on free speech and press freedom.
Three Raajje TV journalists have meanwhile been found guilty of obstructing police duty and handed fines during the past two months. They became the first journalists to be convicted in the Maldives in more than a decade.
The prosecution of the journalists stand in stark contrast to the lack of justice for crimes committed against the press, including the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the arson attack on Raajje TV, the near-fatal beating of the station’s former news head, and the mass death threats sent via text messages to journalists.
The Maldives is now ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.