The Maldives has fallen five places in the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index after a new law criminalised defamation and allowed the authorities to shut down media outlets.
The Maldives is now ranked 117 out of 180 countries, down from 112 the previous year.
Based on developments during the past year, RSF said the government continues to “persecute the independent media” and that many journalist have been the target of death threats from political parties, criminal gangs and religious extremists.
“This poisonous climate reinforces self-censorship,” the organisation observed.
“Refusal by the authorities to investigate journalist Ahmed Rilwan’s disappearance in 2014 speaks to the climate of violence and impunity in which journalists operate.”
The release of this year’s index comes after the brutal murder of liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed, a human rights defender who was leading the campaign to find the missing Maldives Independent journalist Rilwan, who was abducted at knifepoint in August 2014.
Earlier this month, the broadcasting regulator meanwhile slapped an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine on Raajje TV for airing a speech at an opposition rally that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.
If the fine is not paid before May 6, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission could suspend or cancel the opposition-aligned station’s broadcasting license. The fine must also be paid in full before the regulator’s decision could be appealed to a court.
According to regulations enacted under the law, media outlets can be fined between MVR50,000 (US$3,200) and MVR500,000 (US$32,400) for a first offence, and up to MVR2 million (US$129,700) after the third offence.
The re-criminalisation of defamation was widely condemned as an attack on free speech. A consensus emerged among the Maldivian media that the law would be the death knell of press freedom in the country.
Journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits or criminal prosecution.
Three Raajje TV journalists have also been found guilty of obstructing police duty and handed fines. They became the first journalists to be convicted in the Maldives in more than a decade.
The prosecution of the journalists was in stark contrast to the lack of justice for the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, the arson attack on Raajje TV, and the near-fatal beating of the station’s former news head.
The Maldives is now ranked between Mali and Guatemala on the 2017 index.
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.
Of other South Asian countries, Bhutan and Nepal are ranked the highest at 83 and 100, respectively. Other neighbouring countries are ranked below the Maldives with India on 136, Pakistan on 139, Sri Lanka on 141, and Bangladesh on 146.
Three Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – topped the RSF index while Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan were the worst performers at the other end of this year’s scale.