The broadcasting regulator has slapped an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine on Raajje TV for airing a speech at an opposition rally in October that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission said it concluded after an inquiry that the content “openly created doubts in the hearts of the people about the legal duties or responsibilities of the ruler of the Maldives and damaged his honour and dignity”.
If the fine is not paid within 30 days, the commission can suspend or cancel Raajje TV’s broadcasting license. The fine must also be paid in full before the regulator’s decision could be appealed to a court.
The station raised the money through a fundraising drive.
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 MVR1 million fine is the maximum allowed for a second offence.
The MBC said it launched the inquiry of its own initiative as it believed the content was slanderous as defined by article 10 of the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act.
The statement noted that Raajje TV admitted to broadcasting the Maldives United Opposition rally live around 11:37 pm on October 26. The regulator did not say who made the speech or which part of it was slanderous.
The rally took place at the opposition meeting hall near the artificial beach in Malé.
The defamation law controversially holds TV stations responsible for defamatory content aired during live coverage of political rallies. In August, Raajje TV began airing rallies and protests with a delay of up to two minutes in case some parts need to be beeped out.
The MBC is authorised to investigate complaints and impose fines against broadcasters whilst the Maldives Media Council, comprised of members elected by journalists, can take action against print and online media.
The seven-member broadcasting commission 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.
In December, the commission dismissed a complaint alleging defamation of former Presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed by the state broadcaster.
The passage of the anti-defamation law led to the abrupt closure of the Maldives’ first private TV station, DhiTV, and journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits.
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.
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 Raajje TV 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 112th on the France-based Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, which said the country remains “very hostile for independent and opposition media”.