The Maldives has been ranked 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index for a second consecutive year. The 2016 press freedom index, which ranks some 180 countries, said that the Maldives remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media” since the February 2012 “coup d’état.”
“In a state of emergency and ‘national security’ climate, the media continue to be subjected to police brutality and government obstruction. Many Maldivian journalists have reported being the targets of death threats,” RSF observed.
Citing a report that identified political parties as the main threat to journalists, RSF added: “This poisonous climate reinforces self-censorship.”
The Maldivian media have recently launched a campaign for press freedom, with some 183 journalists signing a petition demanding the withdrawal of government-sponsored legislation on criminalising defamation and justice for attacks on journalists.
Three journalists representing the Maldivian media also visited Colombo this week to share concerns over press freedom with diplomats and international media outlets.
President Abdulla Yameen lashed out at journalists on Tuesday night, and defended the government’s plans to re-criminalise defamation.
“Where is it that we see a lack of press freedom in the Maldives? What freedom don’t we have here? What is the freedom that we don’t have here? Is it the work that is being carried out, to stop defame people’s character? Is that the lack of freedom?” he asked
“They can write in newspapers as much as they want about how the state is run. But state institutions cannot be defamed. However, they can write as much as they dare, in portrait, or landscape, on A4-size paper, or on A3-size paper, about how the state is run. These are things we welcome. However, they will not have the space to talk about, and defame someone in a process where that person is defenseless.
“That is not something that will be allowed. By carrying out things like this, by talking about the Maldives, travelling abroad to say there is no freedom of expression, of media, in the Maldives, these messages we see being widely accepted by some Ambassadors. But there should be stability in the Maldives. There should be homegrown stability in the Maldives. It should be a homegrown formula.”
The journalists had met with ambassadors from the EU, UK, Germany, Canada and Australia.
The proposed bill on defamation sets fines of up to MVR5million for defamatory claims and a jail term of one year if the accused is unable to pay the amount.
The campaign comes in the wake of the arrest of some 18 journalists from a sit-in protest outside the president’s office on April 3. The protest was prompted by the abduction of The Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the court-ordered shutdown of the country’s oldest newspaper, the criminal court’s ban of reporters from four outlets, and the appointment of President Abdulla Yameen’s campaign workers to the broadcasting regulator.
Yameen and Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan have since pledged to revise the defamation bill, but the state went on to file charges against three Raajje TV journalists. Their trials began this week.
In a speech on April 17, Yameen had said: “We have listened to the complaints by the journalists, and agreed to change the bill… we are lowering the penalties, shortening the one year jail sentence and reducing the fines. But as president, I have to take into account the interests of the Maldivian people and ensure that everyone’s reputation is protected.”
Despite the declining freedoms, Maldives scored higher than its South Asian neighbours, with the exception of Bhutan and Nepal. India and Sri Lanka were ranked 133rd and 141st, respectively.
RSF annually ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria, including media pluralism, independence, respect for safety and freedom of journalists, and the country’s legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment for the media.
The Maldives is ranked between Paraguay and Bulgaria on the 2016 index – which is based on developments during the previous year.
Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104th – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129th.
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 51st and 52nd respectively.
However, the Maldives slid to 103rd in 2012 and 108th in 2013, falling further to 112th in the 2014 index.
In February 2013, opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death, while the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October.
In June 2012, two men slashed the throat of freelance journalist and blogger Ismail Hilath Rasheed with a box cutter.
Three Scandinavian countries – Finland, Netherlands, and Norway – topped the RSF index while Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan were the worst performers at the other end of this year’s scale.