The broadcast regulator has thrown out a libel complaint against the state TV in a decision that stands in stark contrast to action it has taken against opposition-aligned outlets for defaming President Abdulla Yameen.
The Maldives Broadcasting Commission, when asked to investigate Public Service Media for questioning former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed’s Islamic faith, dismissed the petition saying the pair had shown no interest in pursuing the matter.
“Since the former presidents have not submitted a complaint over defamation, the members of the commission agreed that the commission will not take the initiative to investigate,” the MBC said Wednesday.
The anonymous complaint was the first filed at the MBC under a new law criminalising defamation.
Both Nasheed and Gayoom had opposed the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act and said they would not seek legal action under that law.
Had the PSM and the author of the report been found guilty, they would have faced fines of up to MVR150,000 (US$9,727) and MVR2million (US$130,000), respectively.
Failure to pay the fine could result in a jail term of six months for the author and suspension or cancellation of PSM’s broadcasting license.
The MBC’s refusal to investigate the complaint against PSM came a day after the vice president of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamed Shifaz, was questioned by the police on charges of slandering a former member of that party.
A journalist from newspaper Mihaaru was also summoned.
Rights lawyers have meanwhile criticised the MBC for rejecting the PSM complaint, saying Article 27 of the law authorises the media regulator to initiate investigations into and take action against defamation.
“The nature of a criminal offence is that law enforcement bodies are required to launch investigations regardless of whether a complaint is withdrawn,” a lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said. “The aim of the law is to punish offenders, not protect victims.”
A second lawyer noted that the MBC had penalised opposition-aligned Raajje TV before the law’s enactment ordering it to take down articles and apologise for defaming the president.
The PSM’s controversial news report was aired on prime time on its news channel, Television Maldives, on August 11, a day after the parliament approved the defamation law
The report interpreted Gayoom’s opposition to the law as support for the “secular policies” of his political rival Nasheed.
“We are now starting to believe that Maumoon, like Nasheed, will start advocating in his tweets for Maldivians to behave like white people, to back-bite and criticise, and not stay sober all the time,” the report said, and went on to allege that Gayoom was in talks with the opposition to ensure he was given the title of “Maldives’ supreme leader” and facilitate his son’s rise to power.
In the face of widespread outrage, TVM took off the video feature and an accompanying article from its website.
Shortly after, the commission received an anonymous complaint seeking action against the channel for calling Gayoom and Nasheed ‘un-Islamic’ in its report.
At the time, several journalists expressed scepticism over the media regulatory body’s willingness to take strict action against PSM.
Niumathulla Idrees, a journalist with Mihaaru, wrote: “If this were a report broadcast by private media about government officials… I am sure they will be fined, journalists locked up and media houses shut down.”
The MBC has also previously dismissed defamation complaints against pro-government TV station, Channel 13.