A journalist was summoned to the police on Tuesday for the first criminal inquiry into a news article since the parliament re-criminalised defamation in August.
Fazeena Ahmed, a journalist at newspaper Mihaaru, was questioned over a September 20 article in which the vice president of the Maldivian Democratic Party had criticised three ex members for launching a plan to reform the opposition party.
Fazeena had quoted the MDP Vice President Mohamed Shifaz saying that the three were outsiders.
A police spokeswoman said the summons “does not necessarily mean that Fazeena is under investigation.”
The complaint was filed by Shujau Hussain, the former vice president of the local government authority, who has a history of switching between the opposition and the ruling coalition.
Shujau told local media that he had requested the police to file criminal charges against those responsible for the article, “whether it be Fazeena Ahmed or Mohamed Shifaz.”
The Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, widely condemned as an attack on free speech and press freedom, sets hefty fines for defamation. Failure to pay the fine leads to a jail term of six months.
Fazeena’s article, titled “They are not MDP members, their agenda is to destroy the party, says Shifaz”, was written in response to Shujau and his associates calling for reforms to the opposition party on September 19.
Shujau, MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik and Alhan Fahmy, a former MDP MP, had questioned the legitimacy of the opposition’s leadership, accusing former President Mohamed Nasheed of “hijacking” the party.
In response, Shifaz told Mihaaru that Moosa and Alhan were no longer party members, and that Shujau was a member of the Maldives Development Alliance, a minor party in the ruling coalition.
“The party [MDP] can only be reformed by its members. That is not a job for people who have nothing to do with the party,” Shifaz was quoted as saying.
Shujau told the Maldives Independent that the claim that he was an MDA member was false and defamatory.
He said: “Fazeena wrote the article, she didn’t ask me, she didn’t call me to confirm. So I submitted the matter to the police, asked them to investigate all those responsible. It is the job of journalists to report the truth. So if you’re writing something, you have a responsibility to check.”
Shujau had left the MDA in 2014 to join the MDP, but left the party again when he lost the primary for a parliamentary seat that year. The MDP, in April last year, rejected a fresh bid by Shujau to re-join the party.
Shujau said: “Saying that I am an MDA member makes people think that I am not an MDP member and that restricts me from carrying out activities as an MDP member.
When asked to clarify his status with the MDP, Shujau said: “MDP has not granted me membership, but I believe I am an MDP person. I identify as an MDP member and would like to carry out activities as an MDP person.”
He said that although he did not agree with every provision in the defamation law, he “whole-heartedly supported the spirit of the law.”
“I don’t believe that freedom of press is limitless. In exemplar democratic such as the UK and the US, billions of dollars are handed down as fines for defamation. I think the figure in the law should be much higher.”
If Fazeena is found guilty, she faces a fine of up to MVR150,000 (US$9,728) and Mihaaru faces a fine of up to MVR2million (US$130,000). Shifaz could also be penalised by up to MVR2million (US$130,000).
The print and online media regulator, the Maldives Media Council, meanwhile said it was not informed of the complaint concerning the article by Mihaaru.
Officials noted that it is the MMC and not the police that is authorised to investigate complaints against journalists and media outlets.
Mohamed Asif, the MMC president, said: “If a journalist is summoned to the police in any matter, the MMC must should be notified. We have not received such communication from the police.”
Hussain Hassan, an MMC member, added: “From what I understand, the police are investigating someone else and Fazeena was only summoned for questioning. But, since the primary issue concerns the article by Mihaaru, the correct procedure for the police would be to notify the MMC to look into the matter.”