Privately-owned TV stations Friday night blacked out speeches from exiled opposition leaders at a Jumhooree Party rally.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed and JP leader Gasim Ibrahim spoke via video conference but the opposition-aligned Raajje TV and Villa TV cut off live coverage, heeding warnings of punitive action from the broadcasting regulator and home ministry against “promoting” convicts.
Nasheed, who was found guilty of ordering the “abduction” of a judge after a widely condemned trial in 2015, lives in exile in Sri Lanka. Business tycoon Gasim fled to Germany after he was convicted of bribery and sentenced to three years in jail in August last year.
Hussain Fiyaz Moosa, Raajje TV’s chief operating officer, told the Maldives Independent that there were no legal grounds to ban coverage of the heavyweight politicians.
“Right now, we know that it is not unlawful to do it even though the home ministry issued the order, there is nothing in the law that prohibits the media from covering it,” he said.
“But in the Maldives at the moment we don’t have any guarantees that authorities will act within the law or that we will get justice afterwards even. So we have been forced to censor content that includes interviews or speeches of anyone who has a prison sentence.”
In January, the Maldives Correctional Service warned the media not to publish statements issued by convicts.
The MCS referred to two regulations about detainees and said it was a violation to publish or broadcast statements, interviews or quotes from prisoners. However, neither regulation referred to in the statement mentions the media nor specifies actions that can be taken against the media.
A spokesman for the MCS, when contacted by the Maldives Independent, was unable to say what was being referred to in the statement.
Then in May, the home ministry and the Maldives Broadcasting Commission doubled down on the warning, issuing new threats to broadcasters and media outlets that “promote” convicts.
Fiyaz said Raajje TV has been censoring content since then, opting not to show Nasheed’s speech at the Maldivian Democratic Party’s congress where he gave up the main opposition party’s presidential ticket.
“Even with the news coverage of them, we have resorted to digging up old footage of them to show on TV,” he said.
The MBC has previously taken action against Raajje TV under the controversial 2016 anti-defamation law, including imposing a fine of MVR1 million (US$64,850) for airing a speech that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.
Last month, the state media company meanwhile assured equal airtime for the opposition once the Elections Commission announces candidates and running mates on August 18.
Since the Public Service Media company was established by law in 2015, state media channels have been criticised for exclusively showing ruling party rallies and airing talk shows without an opposition voice.
“TVM is a government mouthpiece. Even if we might not think like them, we can’t speak out openly against it or there will be disciplinary measures,” a senior editor told the Maldives Independent after the anti-defamation law came into force.