The Maldives is tightening its grip on the media and freedom of speech by using the broadcasting regulator to silence and intimidate journalists, a leading NGO has warned, as the government pushes a draft law that could see newspapers and TV stations temporarily shut down or fined.
Transparency Maldives, in a statement Monday, condemned the government for proposing a bill that would merge two existing media watchdogs and “expand its sphere of state control on print and social media as well”.
The proposed Maldives Media Commission can order print and online outlets to make corrections, issue warnings, and impose fines of up to MVR100,000 (US$6,485) for repeated violations.
If written or broadcast content is deemed to pose a danger to Islam, national security, public order or public health, the commission can ask the police to stop publication or broadcast.
“Today we are witnessing the State using the Broadcasting Commission to intimidate and silence broadcast media and journalists critical of or questioning the policies of the government through hefty fines and/or threats of criminal prosecution,” said Transparency Maldives.
“But this bill has the possibility to allow for this intimidation to extend to published media, blogs and even social media posts.”
The broadcasting commission has imposed hefty fines against the opposition-aligned Raajje TV under a controversial 2016 anti-defamation law, including an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine for airing a speech deemed defamatory to President Abdulla Yameen.
The Maldives is now ranked 117 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index, down from 112 the previous year, with the NGO saying the draft media bill could push the country further down the list.
The proposed commission can seek court judgments to cancel the registration or broadcasting license of newspapers and TV stations.
The seven-member body, appointed by the president, can also order the temporary suspension of a newspaper, magazine or website that repeatedly break laws and regulations and refuse to take corrective measures.