Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan threatened a journalist during a televised press conference on Saturday in response to a question about allegations linking ruling coalition lawmakers to the Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal.
Referring to the theft of nearly US$80 million from the state-owned Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, Raajje TV journalist Azmoon Ahmed asked if there was any truth to claims that most pro-government lawmakers were awarded islands for resort development.
He also asked for a response to claims that MPs were “shackled” and compelled to remain loyal to President Abdulla Yameen because of the corruption scandal.
Nihan said in response: “You said [islands were awarded to] all of the members of our parliamentary group apart from a few. If that turns out be a lie, I say as an answer: get ready to face the anti-defamation law.”
He added: “I am certain it will go there over this problem. For a certainty, apart from those of us doing business, I’m saying this because I am certain that the others don’t have resorts or uninhabited islands. God willing, over this matter, we will then see you in court.”
Earlier this month, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission slapped an MVR200,000 (US$13,000) fine on Raajje TV in the first punitive action taken under the controversial 2016 defamation law, which authorises the regulator to investigate complaints and impose fines.
Failure to pay the fines within 30 days could result in the closure of the station or the jailing of individual journalists after cases are sent to court.
The passage of the anti-defamation law had 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.
At Saturday’s press conference, MP Ali Arif meanwhile pressed Azmoon for the source of the allegations and asked the journalist for a list of names.
With 41 ruling coalition lawmakers in attendance, the press conference was held as a show of strength ahead of Monday’s no-confidence vote against Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed.
After the live press conference, MP Mohamed Musthafa, who has sided with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the PPM’s leadership dispute, condemned Nihan over the threat to Azmoon.
“Threatening a reporter is unbecoming of someone like you who is in a position of power. Shame on you,” he tweeted.
Raajje TV meanwhile reported last week that a PPM MP was awarded an uninhabited island in Haa Dhaal atoll without a bidding process.
A letter from the tourism ministry informing the lawmaker of an extension to settle the US$1 million lease acquisition cost was leaked to the opposition-aligned station.
The tourism law was controversially amended last year to allow the government to lease listed islands without a transparent and competitive bidding process.
The MMPRC corruption scandal was meanwhile exposed in a damning audit report released in February 2016, which laid bare the theft of millions of dollars from resort lease payments.
The bulk of the stolen funds was deposited into the account of SOF Pvt Ltd, a local company owned by Mohamed Allam Latheef ‘Moho,’ who later claimed that he provided a “brokerage” service and diverted the funds to the first couple and ruling party members.
But President Abdulla Yameen denied any wrongdoing, claiming the unprecedented corruption scandal did not reach higher than his former right-hand man.
Former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb has since been jailed for 33 years on multiple charges of terrorism and corruption, including one count of graft involving the embezzlement of US$5 million paid by Kuredu Holdings for the island of Maabinhuraa in Lhaviyani Atoll.
He is also facing more than 50 counts of graft over US$65 million collected as acquisition costs by the MMPRC that was diverted into private bank accounts.
Earlier this month, the Anti-Corruption Commission said its long-awaited report on the MMPRC scandal will be made public in April.
Speaking at a PPM event on Wednesday, Yameen said the anti-graft watchdog’s efforts have given “some degree of hope that there are paths to recover this money”.
He added: “Recovering the money is the biggest task. Punishing those who [stole] is the easiest thing. But that doesn’t give us back the money lost from the state.”
Yameen also repeated his apology for the corruption scandal occurring under his watch.
Falhurahthah resort hadhan PPM coalition MP in nah dheegen ulhey thuhumathaa beheygothun Azmoon kuri ebeyfulhun koafaavi suvaalu. pic.twitter.com/VwfWHfvzM4
— RaajjeTV (@Raajje_tv) March 25, 2017