Reporters Without Borders, the international watchdog for press freedom, has slammed President Abdulla Yameen over continued pressure on critical and independent media in the country.
Yameen’s actions can only lead to authoritarianism and the end of democracy, the organisation said, after a court banned former journalists with the now-defunct newspaper, Haveeru, from working at a new paper for two years.
The decision is “utterly absurd and unacceptable,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of Asia-Pacific desk at RSF. “The court’s verdict not only violates the fundamental rights of all the journalists which it targets, but it also confirms, if need be, that the judiciary is serving the government’s policy to suppress critical and independent media in the country.”
The civil court’s ruling on Sunday could shutter Mihaaru, a newspaper set up in May by former Haveeru journalists who resigned en masse after the country’s oldest newspaper was shut down in an ownership dispute.
The ruling is the latest in a series of actions taken against the press by various arms of the Maldivian state.
Channel News Maldives, a critical news website, was forced to close down last week after it levelled corruption allegations against First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim. The paper’s main financier pulled out after it published an expose on how an NGO linked to Fathimath was distributing dates donated to the Maldives by the Saudi king in its name.
In the wake of CNM’s closure, RSF called on the Commonwealth to react without delay.
Ismail said last week: “The disappearance of one of the last media outlets still daring to criticize the government will inevitably be accompanied by an increase in self-censorship by the few remaining independent media still operating.
“The pressure from the government must stop, and the Commonwealth must react urgently so that Maldives does not end up with a political system that only has room for pro-government views.”
The Commonwealth is set to review the Maldives’ progress on a six-point reform agenda, including space for press freedom, in September.
Former CNM journalists had protested its closure by distributing dates to fellow reporters last week.
Misbah Abbas, a senior editor with the website, said that the protest was in defiance of the Yameen-led government’s efforts to curb media freedom. “CNM’s staff is not looking to back down. Shutting down CNM hopefully brought more strength to us,” he said.
Shortly after the June 26 protest, Misbah said he was attacked by two men on a motorcycle who drove at him at high speed causing him to fall into a ditch.
The Maldives has plummeted in the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, falling by 60 places since 2010. It is now ranked112 out of 180 countries.
Commenting on CNM and Haveeru’s closure in an op-ed on June 28, the editor of Mihaaru, Ismail Naseer said: “True, on the surface the government does not appear to have a hand in the closure of these two papers. But a lot has been going on behind the scenes. I know for a fact that government officials played a major role in shuttering the two papers.”
Some 183 journalists signed a petition in April urging the authorities to tackle threats to press freedom.
The petition, supported by newspapers across the political spectrum, outlined nine deamands, including withdrawing a bill making defamation a criminal offence, and a thorough inquiry into the disappearance of the Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who was abducted from outside his home in 2014.
Journalists also called for withdrawal of charges against four Raajje TV journalists on trial, and expressed concern over the appointment of ruling party activists to the broadcast regulator, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission.