Public Service Media, the Maldives’ state broadcaster has taken down an online article accusing former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of being anti-Islamic.
PSM triggered a storm of criticism as it posted the article, just a day after the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives approved a widely condemned law criminalizing defamation.
Gayoom, who is locked in a battle with his half-brother, current President Abdulla Yameen, for the control of PPM, had appealed to MPs to reject the bill.
“Integrity and courage are crucial for success in all political endeavors. If we allow fear to restrict our actions we will never deliver,” he said in a tweet soon after losing the vote. Only four ruling coalition MPs, including Gayoom’s son voted No. Three others did not attend the vote.
PSM interpreted Gayoom’s tweet as support for what it calls the secular policies of exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president who had ended Gayoom’s 30-year rule.
“President Maumoon’s sudden change of stance, in line with Nasheed’s, and encouragement of fun without fear came as a surprise to many. This raises questions over what the nearly 80-year old Maumoon may say next,” a broadcast of the report aired on PSM’s Television Maldives said. “We are now starting to believe that Maumoon, like Nasheed did, will start advocating in his tweets for Maldivians to behave like white people, to back-bite and criticise, and not to stay sober all the time.”
The term fun without fear refers to Nasheed’s sports pledge, unveiled during the 2013 presidential elections, which his opponents had claimed would encourage anti- Islamic activities in the Maldives.
Citing unnamed media reports, PSM went on to allege that Gayoom, who is currently abroad, was in talks with the opposition to ensure he is given the title of Maldives’ supreme leader and to facilitate his son’s rise to power.
“The state broadcaster is 38 years old. I have never seen such a deplorable article on TVM yet,” wrote Hussain Hussain, a Sun Online journalist and member of print and online media regulator. “What will be the result of stoking the fire of hate that burns here?”
Lawyer Maumoon Hameed, Gayoom’s nephew, said: “Is this going to be the first case investigated by police under the new defamation law?”
The Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act became law on Thursday. It sets fines of up to MVR2million (US$130,000) for content or speech that is defamatory, threatens national security and breaches social norms.
Failure to pay the fine can lead to a jail term of up to six months, and closure of newspapers and other media offices.
Niumathulla Idrees, a journalist with Mihaaru, wrote: “Will the defamation law be applied over PSM? Will any state institution believe that the article was defamatory? Will they investigate if a complaint is lodged? If this were a report broadcast by private media about government officials, what would have happened now? I am sure they will be fined, journalists locked up and media houses shut down.”
PSM’s CEO, Ibrahim Khaleel, was not responding to calls at the time of going to press.
The broadcast regulator, Maldives Broadcasting Comission, has meanwhile appealed to all journalists to respect the defamation law.
The commission, which was reconstituted in April, has been accused of bias and discriminatory treatment. While it has ordered opposition aligned Raajje TV to take down articles and apologise for defaming the president, critics say it has refused to take action against pro-government Channel 13 when it broadcast similar remarks against opposition figures.
Hours after the bill’s passage, the Maldives’ first private TV channel, Dhi TV, shut down abruptly.