State attorneys have challenged at the high court a two-year work ban imposed on former reporters at the Maldives’ oldest newspaper, Haveeru.
The civil court ruling, which prohibits all former Haveeru employees from working at any other news outlet for two years, is unconstitutional and will amount to forced labour, attorneys said.
The civil court and the attorney general’s office had previously clashed over the ruling after Attorney General Mohamed Anil said the order was unlawful, invalid and unenforceable. At the time, the court threatened to hold Anil in contempt of court.
The work ban followed a 2015 ruling by the high court that split the paper’s ownership. In April, the civil court ordered Haveeru’s founder Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain to involve the new shareholders in managing and operating the paper.
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.
All of Haveeru’s journalists and support staff then resigned en masse to set up a new paper, Mihaaru. Weeks later, on July 3, the civil court issued the work ban, citing a need to protect the interests of the paper’s new shareholders.
Civil court Judge Mohamed Haleem, a former press freedom campaigner, had ordered regulators and the home ministry to enforce the ruling within seven days and take action against any staff who refused to comply.
Some 50 of the 80 staff at Haveeru are now working at Mihaaru. They say the work-ban, if enforced, will shutter Mihaaru.
Some 35 employees have joined in the attorney general’s office challenge to the work ban.
Laying out their case, state lawyers said that the right to work is enshrined in the constitution, as is the right to protection from forced labour. The state cannot order workers to work or not to work in a particular organisation, they argued, which means that the civil court ruling is unenforceable.
“The rights of over 70 employees cannot be denied in the name of protecting the interests of Haveeru shareholders,” one attorney said.
The civil court’s failure to consult the staff of Haveeru before restricting their rights also contravened the principles of natural justice, she added.
The bench, comprising of Abdul Rauf Ibrahim, Abdulla Didi and Ali Sameer, asked the state why it had lodged the appeal and why it thought the enforcement of a court order amounted to forced labour.
In response, attorneys reminded judges of the state’s constitutional obligation to protect rights, said they were of the view that courts can only impose restrictions on labour rights as part of rehabilitation programs, such as mandatory community service.
Attorneys also asked the court to stay the civil court ruling, but judges concluded the hearing without ruling on the request.
The new shareholders of Haveeru – Abdulla Farooq Hassan, Ibrahim Rasheed Moosa, and Mohamed Naseem – had worked at the paper at the time of its founding.
The three laid a claim to the paper based on a 1983 agreement that had established a body called the Haveeru News Agency to operate the paper. The agreement was reportedly annulled in 1985.
The claim was laid in 2013, some 30 years after the news agency was dissolved. At the time, the three won a stay order on the paper’s sale.
The following year the civil court rejected the claim, but the high court ruled in their favour in August 2015, a ruling that was widely perceived as politically motivated.
Zahir, the paper’s founder, had maintained throughout the high court appeal hearings that the agency was only set up to disseminate news and operate the daily, and that it had no claim to the newspaper’s assets and printing press.
The supreme court has thrown out an appeal of the high court ruling.
Since the shuttering of Haveeru, two other news outlets have also closed down. Channel News Maldives, a critical news website, shut down in June, citing unrelenting political pressure, and DhiTV, the Maldives’ first private TV station, was switched off earlier this month after the ruling party approved a new law criminalising defamation.