The Maldives has jumped 22 places in the annual press freedom index by the France-based Reporters Without Borders, improving its score for the first time since 2010.
The Maldives fell steadily during former president Abdulla Yameen’s administration but the election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in September “raised hopes” after specific pledges were made to improve press freedom, RSF observed.
“One promise has been kept: two months after the elections, parliament repealed the draconian 2016 law on defamation, which had been widely used by the previous government to harass independent media outlets, especially Raajje TV, which had to pay a total of 215,000 euros in fines for allegedly defaming Yameen,” RSF noted.
“Police violence against journalists increased sharply during the first half of 2018 but is not currently an issue. However, impunity for crimes against journalists remains. The police never found Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist who disappeared in August 2014, and they did not identify his abductors. And the murder of Yameen Rasheed, a blogger who was stabbed to death in April 2017, remains unpunished.”
Both cases are under investigation by a commission formed by President Solih on his first day in office. Last month, the chair of the inquiry commission told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the murder and abduction were carried out by an extremist group.
The widely-condemned anti-defamation law was meanwhile repealed in November.
Enacted in August 2016, it had been used by the broadcasting regulator to slap fines worth MVR3.7 million (US$240,000) on the opposition-aligned Raajje TV, mostly for airing speeches deemed defamatory towards president Yameen.
Large fines were also imposed on other privately-owned stations. While civil remedies were kept in place, police were authorised to investigate complaints against individuals and forward cases for prosecution. Failure to pay fines of up to MVR2 million if found guilty could have resulted in a jail term of three to six months.
In the South Asia region, only Bhutan at 80 ranked higher than the Maldives in the 2019 index, with Nepal on 106, Sri Lanka on 126, India on 140, Pakistan on 142, and Bangladesh on 150.
Norway, Finland and Sweden topped the RSF index while North Korea, Eritrea and China were the worst performers.
Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104 – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129.
The country’s ranking in 2009 and 2010 reflected dramatic improvements in press freedom – including decriminalisation of defamation under former president Mohamed Nasheed’s administration – rising to 51 and then 52 on the index.
However, the Maldives slid to 103 in 2012 and 108 in 2013, falling further to 112 in the 2014 index.