An opposition activist is under arrest on suspicion of defaming President Abdulla Yameen and spreading false information on social media to dissuade foreign investors.
According to Ali Zahir, spokesman of the opposition Adhaalath Party, Mohamed Haneef was arrested in the early hours of Friday. “Leading reform activist Haneef was arrested last night. Stop arresting activists to serve a political purpose,” he tweeted.
Zahir told the Maldives Independent that Haneef was accused of “spreading false rumours on social media to discredit the government and cause loss of confidence of investors.”
Raajje TV reported on Saturday that the criminal court has remanded Haneef to police custody for seven days.
Haneef’s lawyer told the opposition-aligned station that the activist was also accused of spreading false rumours about the H1N1 swine flu virus, an outbreak of which led schools and state universities to close in mid-March.
But Haneef reportedly told the police that he does not have social media accounts on Twitter or other platforms, with the exception of a family Facebook account.
A police spokeswoman was unable to confirm the arrest despite repeated calls.
On Friday night, the police interrogated Anas Abdul Sattar, secretary-general of the Maldivian Democratic Party, over a tweet from the MDP’s official account that urged opposition supporters to gather near the police headquarters in solidarity with Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim when he was summoned for questioning.
In late March, opposition lawyer Nazim Sattar was summoned for questioning over a retweet alleging that the first lady was travelling from Singapore to Malé “with large amounts of cash”.
Thayyib Shaheem, a prominent social media activist, has meanwhile been under arrest since March 16 on suspicion of inciting fear and panic about the H1N1 swine flu virus and sowing discord among the public with false information on social media.
Amnesty International has since declared Thayyib a “prisoner of conscience” as he was “detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression”.
Last month, the international human rights group expressed concern that restrictions imposed by the government on the right to freedom of expression are contrary to obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Transparency Maldives, the local branch of global anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, meanwhile launched an online campaign in support of journalism and dissemination of information.
“We condemn the harassment and intimidation of social media activists and journalists by the State.
Media is just an expression of demand for information,” the NGO said.
In early March, a man was arrested for tweeting that the military was trying to assassinate Yameen.
According to online paper VFP, Azzam Latheef was remanded for 10 days in police custody but was released on the condition that he does not tweet for three months.
An ambulance driver from the island of Milandhoo in Shaviyani atoll was meanwhile fired in late February over a Facebook post deemed to be disrespectful towards the first couple.
Ahmed Shiyam, an MDP member, told the Maldives Independent last month hat he was handed a document from the health ministry that said he had to respond to the disciplinary charge within five days.
“I have answered them saying I will not support the ruling party even if I am threatened and that I can do other work,” he told the Maldives Independent in early March.
“I have not heard from them since. They claim the comments were made on my Facebook account. However, I have not used it in a very long time and I don’t really know to write very well.”
Shiyam alleged that he was asked to sign for the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives on multiple occasions.
“Many have also told me that I may lose my job if I do not cooperate with the current ruling party. Some have also said that if they cannot find a fault in my work ethic, they will create one,” he said.
Khadeeja Abdul Samad, the health ministry’s permanent secretary, told newspaper Mihaaru at the time that civil servants must adhere to a code of conduct.
“The regulation specifies certain ways that civil servants should behave. If they act otherwise action will be taken against them,” she was quoting as saying.
She declined to provide details, saying internal matters of the ministry are not shared with the media.
Shiyam, 37, had been working as an ambulance driver at the island’s health centre for 12 years. The father of two said that he views the incident as a form of coercion to gain support for the government.
“This is like tying a noose on our necks and asking to clap to whatever they do,” he said.
Additional reporting by Shafaa Hameed.