The president’s office has denied filing defamation complaints with the Maldives Media Council against several media outlets.
“No complaint has been filed with any institution in the president’s office’s name against journalists or media outlets. The MMC has been informed of this,” Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s office spokesman, tweeted Monday afternoon.
The tweet followed reports about the president’s office asking the regulator to investigate articles published by Raajje TV’s website, Mihaaru, VFP, Vaguthu and the Maldives Independent.
Despite Muaz’s insistence to the contrary, the council told VFP’s editor Ismail Rasheed on Monday to respond to several complaints about five articles deemed defamatory towards First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim. According to VFP, the articles concerned the distribution of medicine and influenza vaccine by the first lady’s office during a flu outbreak in March.
Complaints were also filed against six journalists from the opposition-aligned Raajje TV over reports and news articles published on Raajje.mv about the first lady. The station reported Sunday that the journalists were told to submit their defence within seven days.
Newspaper Mihaaru and three of its journalists have also been asked to respond in writing before June 1 to 14 defamation complaints concerning coverage about the first lady.
But Muaz also declared in a series of tweets today that the first lady has not submitted any complaints about media organisations.
“She believes journalists and media outlets should have the right to freedom of expression,” he tweeted.
He later told VFP that the president’s office did not submit any complaints either. “We are looking into whether such complaints were submitted anywhere in the president’s office’s name. If they were, we will withdraw them,” he assured.
According to the MMC’s letters sent to VFP and the Raajje TV journalists, the complaints were filed by the chief communication officer of the president’s office.
The former chief communication officer, Ali Khalid, was dismissed from his post earlier this month.
According to Mihaaru, the complaints were filed on March 17.
The Maldives Independent has yet to be formally notified of any complaints.
The controversial 2016 defamation law authorises the 15-member media council – comprised of eight members from media organisations and seven members of the public – to take action against print and online media.
According to regulations enacted under the law, media outlets can be fined between MVR50,000 (US$3,242) and MVR500,000 (US$32,400) for a first offence and up to MVR2 million (US$129,700) after the third offence.
Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the media outlet and a jail term of up to six months for the journalist.
The fine must be paid in full before the regulator’s decision could be appealed to a court.
MMC President Abdul Mueed Hassan declined to comment about the complaints and directed the Maldives Independent to the council’s information officer, who refused to provide any information unless a formal Right to Information request is filed.
The reconstituted council began its current term in December following the election of new members.
Speaking to the Maldives Independent at the time, Misbah Abbas from VFP, who was among the journalists elected to the MMC, criticised the composition of the council at a time when press freedom is under threat in the Maldives.
“Bringing in a columnist or an opinion writer and filling in the media council is not how it should be done,” he said.
“This is the council that is the most unfamiliar with the media landscape. With the former councils, everyone involved was prominent people in the media, journalists and editors. Now we don’t have that.”
The council’s president, Abdul Mueed Hassan, writes for the online blog Bahuru and vice president, Ahmed Abeer Ismail, is the tourism ministry’s information officer.
A second newly-elected member told the Maldives Independent on the condition of anonymity that a majority of the new MMC members would be subject to outside influence.
“I think from the current membership, there are five or six people who can work independently for the betterment of the media industry and it is going to be difficult for them to work, with the Defamation Act and all of that,” he said.
Earlier this month, Raajje TV meanwhile paid an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine imposed by the broadcasting regulator for airing a speech that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.
The Maldives Broadcasting Commission, which is authorised to take action against TV stations, has previously been accused of double standards after the appointment of Fathmath Zaina and Zeena Zahir in April 2016 by the ruling party-dominated parliament.
Both former journalists were working under First Lady Fathmath Ibrahim at the president’s re-election campaign office.
The re-criminalisation of defamation in August last year was widely condemned as the death knell for free speech and press freedom in the Maldives.