The criminal court has banned opposition-aligned Raajje TV from observing trials, even excluding the popular station’s reporters from a hearing on an arson attack that destroyed its head offices in 2013.
Raajje TV is the latest media group to be banned from the court. Government-aligned news websites, Haveeru, V News and Avas, were also banned last week. A reason was not specified.
According to Raajje TV journalists, Azmoon Ahmed and Murshid Abdul Hakeem, court officials stopped them from entering the hearing even though they had been allowed to register for the hearing earlier this morning.
“An official told us that neither Raajje TV journalists nor its cleaning staff would be allowed inside, even if we were there in our personal capacity,” Azmoon told The Maldives Independent.
“He said they were following his superior’s orders and that he could do nothing about it. We were told to make an appointment with the presiding judge if we wanted to find out the reasons for the ban.”
The media bans were part of interim Chief Judge Abdul Bari Yoosuf’s “war on press freedom,” he added.
The court’s spokesman was not responding to calls at the time of going to press.
Journalists from Haveeru, Avas and V News were not allowed inside either.
They were banned a day after their reporters photographed Bari as he was standing outside the courthouse. Bari is under fire for his involvement in the jailing of leading opposition politicians, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.
A prominent footballer, Assad ‘Adubarey’ Ali, was arrested in February after Bari lodged a complaint alleging Assad had harassed him by taking a photo of him. The footballer was released from remand custody on Friday.
The Maldives Media Council, which regulates print and online papers, has labeled the criminal court’s actions as intimidation and obstruction of press freedom. The MMC on Tuesday sent a letter asking the court to specify reasons for the journalist’s suspension.
Journalists from the state broadcaster Public Service Media and independent outlet CNM have also been suspended from hearings previously on a variety of charges.
Court officials have regularly reprimanded reporters for “unfair coverage” of trials involving politicians.
Reporters Without Borders has issued a statement in German expressing concern over press freedom in the Maldives, this year’s partner country of the ITB Berlin Tourism Fair. Journalists who take up sensitive issues are subject to arrests, threats and violence, the global press freedom group said.
The Maldives has plummeted on the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index during the past four years. In 2014, numerous death threats were sent to journalists, journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared, and a machete was buried at the door of the The Maldives Independent office.
Only a few such cases have reached prosecution.
Charges over the Raajje TV arson attack were filed at the criminal court nearly two years after the incident, and only one of the 18 suspects is facing prosecution. The suspect, Mohamed Meead, is already in prison for drug trafficking.
CCTV footage of the attack on shows six masked men armed with machetes and iron rods breaking through a reinforced steel grill and a second wooden door before dousing the station’s control room and lobby with petrol.
The ensuing fire destroyed the station’s offices, control room, computer system, and broadcasting and transmission equipment. The torching of the station occurred in the middle of the 2013 presidential elections.
Defectors from the ruling coalition have accused former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, now detained on a terrorism charge, of ordering the attack. Adeeb, who was tourism minister at the time, denies this.